How can single-member bench decide cases before electricity regulatory commission?
Two members decide to stay away from hearings from Jan 1, leaving chairperson to make decisions alone; activists ask how bias will be ruled out
If you petition the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission (MERC) in the New Year, the three-member commission will not hear you. Only a single member, the chairperson of MERC, will decide your case. Consumer activists have opposed this move, saying it will deny them collective wisdom of the commission.
MERC, a statutory body formed under the Electricity Act, decides policy in matters related to all forms of electricity - its generation, transmission and distribution. It also determines tariffs for all utilities, finalises power purchase agreements between utilities, and resolves disputes that come for hearing before it. Like other states, Maharashtra has a three-member high-power commission with a chairperson and two members.
Considering its importance in decision-making that directly affects consumers, activists who officially represent and argue before the commission have asked the policy that will come into effect from January 1, 2018, be revised. They say that the decision, if pushed ahead, will kill consumer interest and serve only a few like state government-controlled companies which have sought tariff revision.
The debate started after MERC members Azeez Khan and Deepak Lad officially told chairman Anand Kulkarni that they will not participate in hearings from January 1, 2018, because they want to clear old cases. The three-member commission passed a resolution to this effect on December 15, and constituted a special bench under Kulkarni to hear cases from January 1.
President of Maharashtra Veej Grahak Sanghatana (state power consumer association), Pratap Hogade, called it illegal and in violation of section 92 of Electricity Act. "MERC has passed a resolution that only the chairperson will hear cases beginning January 1, 2018. This is absolutely wrong, and there will be no casting vote in matters where views are different," he said.
Hogade said if the commission did not pay heed to the demand, he and other activists will file a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court in the first week of January. "MERC can resolve the issue by clearing all cases before April."
Sandeep Ohri, who has represented consumers in many important cases, said, "There has to be balanced hearing and decision-making because there are legalities, technicalities and administrative issues involved in all cases. If a single-person bench were to hear cases, then the very purpose gets defeated."
Hogade alleged a hidden agenda. "Is the commission under political pressure? Does it want to pass orders that favour certain sections, such as government-owned companies that have asked for revising tariff?" he asked. "One needs to verify if the two members are unwilling to work with Kulkarni because of his strange ways of functioning."
'Just an interim arrangement'
Kulkarni told mid-day on Thursday that the decision was legal and taken only after his colleagues asked for it. "Khan and Lad have 82 cases pending between them. The members want to clear pendency before they demit their respective offices in May next," he said. mid-day has independently verified communication between MERC members and the chairperson, which corroborates Kulkarni's viewpoint. mid-day also accessed statistics to verify claims of pendency.
Kulkarni said full benches will start hearing cases after May, once new members are appointed by the state government. "This is an interim provision. If we delay orders in pending cases, then it will amount to denying justice. What we three have done is in the interest of justice." The chairman dismissed charges, saying he hasn't buckled under political pressure as yet. "And I will never ever succumb to any in future as well."
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