By the end of this month, the electricity transmission and distribution companies are expected to file their proposed tariff documents with the Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission (KERC). The KERC will then invite comments from the public to the filed documents - in effect, asking for the public's views on the proposed tariff for the next year. After the views of the public are submitted to the Commission, the utilities will have three weeks to review them. This will be followed by a public hearing where individuals, consumer groups, farmer groups or industry associations who have filed objections can state their case in person before the KERC. Partly on the basis of the petitions, the Commission will then decide the tariffs for various users for the following year.

The inclusion of some input from the public into the tariff setting process is one of the many changes that have been underway since the 1990s in the state's, and indeed the nation's electricity sector. For quite some time now, the sector has been riddled with several operational and financial problems including large peak shortages, poor quality of supply, low generating plant efficiencies, high transmission and distribution losses, and low revenue realisation. In the 1990s, countries around the world, including India, started restructuring the old setup to try and introduce economic competition in electricity generation and distribution. The process culminated in India in the 2003 Electricity Act.

In this new environment, the functions performed by the former Electricity Board - generation, transmission and distribution - are now divided among different organisations. Unlike many other states, Karnataka separated generation from transmission and distribution (T&D) in the early 1970s itself, but the entire sector remained a government monopoly. Generation has now been opened to the private sector, though the bulk of the electricity is still generated by the public sector. In recent years, the transmission and distribution that was formerly handled by one organisation have been forked out into separate distribution and transmission companies. Five distribution companies, known as ESCOMs, have been set up in Bangalore, Hubli, Gulbarga, Mangalore and Chamundeshwari. These companies purchase electricity from different sources and supply it to consumers in their operating area. Transmission of the generated electricity to the distribution companies is handled by the Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Limited (KPTCL), which levies a transmission charge for each unit of electricity that it delivers to the distribution companies.

In 2000, the number of objections filed by individuals and consumer groups was only 110. But in just two years, it had risen to 9312 in 2002 and this year the number of interventions rose to an overwhelming 11,748!

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Other than breaking up the formerly integrated setup, the restructuring process also called for the creation of a regulatory authority. Under the 1999 Karnataka Electricity Act, the KERC was set up to regulate all aspects of the power sector and balance the interests of the power sector utilities and the consumers. The regulatory arena offers consumers and civil society groups a way to intervene in a sector that they had little voice in earlier. This is particularly useful in making sure that consumer interests are heard while determining tariffs - the price charged for each unit of electricity supplied. Every year KPTCL and the five ESCOMs have to each submit a document, called the Expected Revenue from Charges (ERC), to the KERC. Based on the projected amount of electricity to be sold (or transmitted, in the case of the transmission company), these companies calculate what tariff they need to charge in order to meet their projected expenses. The ESCOMs charge different tariffs depending on the consumer category, from rural households to large industry.

To return to the intervention process, public comments and hearings concerning the ERCs provide one of the few available means for civil society organisations and consumer groups to resist unnecessary tariff increases, which would result in larger electric bills. While companies do need to recover costs, it's untenable to simply bill consumers to recover injudicious expenses or other losses. This can be ensured only if these filings are carefully examined and petitions filed.

Consumers have been increasingly involved in ensuring that tariffs are kept to reasonable limits. In 2000, the number of objections filed by individuals and consumer groups was only 110. But in just two years, it had risen to 9312 in 2002 and this year (2006-07), the number of interventions rose to an overwhelming 11,748! While it's true that the tariff has been revised time and again, in each of these years the tariff hike has typically been smaller than the transmission or distribution companies asked for. For instance, in 2005, KPTCL had sought a raise of 55 paise for a particular consumer category (HT1), but following opposition from consumers, KERC ultimately allowed only a 5 paise hike. Similarly, this year, KPTCL had projected an investment of Rs.2700 crores on the transmission network and proposed to increase the transmission tariff that would be charged to the ESCOMs, from 19.42 paise per unit to 26.06 paise per unit. KPTCL cited reasons such as an inability to cover costs, reduced capacity to finance losses, and the need to ensure an assured revenue stream to improve and maintain the transmission network.

In response, the Consumer Care Society (CCS), a leading consumer group based in Bangalore, filed a petition challenging the proposed increase in tariff. Questioning the rationale for the proposed transmission charges and capital expenditure, CCS argued that that an increase in transmission tariff by 34 percent would adversely affect most consumers. They also argued that in view of KPTCL's past expenditure pattern for capital works, an outlay of Rs. 2700 crores would not be utilised in the time period envisioned for the work to be completed. Other civil society groups also objected to the tariff increase and the investment programme. Meanwhile, KERC constituted an expert committee to look into the investment programme. Based on the public's comments and the expert committee's feedback, KERC asked KPTCL to revise the investment outlay from Rs.2700 crores to Rs.1755 crores and also concluded that the transmission tariff could be retained at 19.42 paise per unit. So interventions do help.

The ethos of consumer rights finds an echo in the Karnataka Electricity Act 2003. Section 61(d) of the Act emphasises the importance of "safeguarding of consumer's interest and at the same time, recovery of the cost of electricity in a reasonable manner". As a way of advancing consumer interests, KERC has also established an Office of Consumer Advocacy, which in turn has promoted a network of consumer groups interested in the electricity sector. While the Regulatory Commission is already trying to protect consumer interests, its role can be strengthened with greater public participation.

At a recent workshop in Bangalore on The Electricity Sector in Karnataka: Emergent Issues and Stakeholder Perspectives, held by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, a member of the Regulatory Commission called for greater public participation not just in the process of tariff setting, but in various other regulatory aspects as well. These include setting rules and rates, evaluation of power purchase agreements, reporting consumer grievances, and checking how KERC's rules are being implemented. Other possibilities for participation include ensuring compliance with the directives of the commission - a set of pointers issued by the commission to reduce losses and improve quality of service to the consumer - and helping the power sector be more environmentally sustainable, through, for example, ensuring greater demand-side management. In a larger sense, participation from civil society is important to counter pressures from the government, the utility companies, and the commercial private sector on the KERC itself.

There is also a broader context to the restructuring of the electricity sector. In this new context, markets and private capital are being entrusted with various functions that were formerly under the purview of governments, and the notion that people were entitled to cheap and reliable electricity supply (like clean water) has been under attack. Hence, in the current restructuring schemes, the availability of electricity to poor or otherwise disadvantaged customers has not been given high priority. Similarly environmental considerations also take a second place to profit. For these considerations to play a role, the public must intervene and shape the restructuring process. People around the world have paid a heavy price by letting government bureaucracies and politicians operate the electricity sector as they saw fit. Robust engagement of the regulatory arena by citizens can ensure that such a state of affairs does not recur. The upcoming public comment period provides an opportunity to remind ourselves of this.