Over 25 lakh online hearings took place in India between March and October 2020, when the country went into lock-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The number has increased since then. Virtual hearings are being conducted across various sectors, primarily by courts of law, and also by institutions such as the Employees Provident Fund Organisation and the Competition Commission of India. Much before these institutions began functioning virtually, Electricity Regulatory Commissions (ERCs) and the Appellate Tribunals for Electricity started hearing urgent cases online from mid-April, very soon after lock-downs were announced in the wake of the pandemic. 

The electricity sector is techno-economic in nature, and ERCs are expected to make decisions on issues by balancing the interests of multiple stakeholders through a public consultative process. However, proceedings before ERCs are generally dominated by cases involving commercial and industrial consumers. Active participation by small, domestic and agricultural consumers is mostly limited to annual tariff revision processes. This could be because they perceive the immediate impact of tariff increase and also because tariff revision process is a rare opportunity to raise service quality complaints. Even then, logistical difficulties and low awareness often deter optimal participation. 

Broadcasting such processes publicly while conducting physical meetings could overcome some of these challenges. In this article, we examine the role and potential of virtual hearings in enhancing participation of small consumers in the electricity sector. The lessons are useful for other public services as well. 

How did ERCs operationalise virtual hearings?

Barring a few, most state ERCs are now conducting their proceedings online. To simplify the process, many ERCs issued detailed guidelines along with step-by-step instructions for downloading web platforms, and joining and maintaining audio/video decorum during such e-hearings. It is commendable to note that ERCs heard a good number of cases during the lock-down. For instance, between 14th May and 12th June in 2020, Maharashtra ERC (MERC) held hearings on seven days and heard roughly 4 cases/day, which was almost at par with operations during the same period in the previous year, when hearings were conducted physically. MERC has further extended the practice of conducting online hearings by introducing the option in its consumer grievance redressal processes.

While online processes have been facilitated, not many have been open to the public. Public participation is vital in processes such as accounting for utilities’ expenses and future capital expenditure plans. Even though such issues were taken up during the lock-down, public hearings were conducted by only few ERCs such as the central commission (CERC), and Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh ERCs. When such hearings are conducted, it is essential to provide facilities that ensure good participation. 

Now that there are provisions for online streaming, ERCs could facilitate public viewing of all hearings by live-streaming them online, as has been done by MERC. Added to this, MERC has provisions for joining anonymously and for typing out questions. Such arrangements promote transparency and encourage consumer participation in regulatory processes. 

How can we ensure better participation? 

Even though several ERCs have taken proactive steps to provide technical assistance for transitioning to online hearings, these hearings might still be exclusionary. The first hurdle comes in the form of limited access to technology in our country. This could form a challenge in case of annual public hearings for consumer tariffs, which see participation from various consumers and local consumer-centric groups when hearings are held in multiple locations across a state. 

The second hurdle is of inclusion in these online processes. Even though ERCs have issued detailed guidelines, these have only been in English, and there are also no provisions for participants with disabilities. To improve accessibility to virtual hearings, one option is to rope in the local distribution company (DISCOM), whose offices could be used to facilitate participation in virtual hearings and host broadcasts, while maintaining physical distance. 

A similar idea has been adopted by a District Magistrate in Lucknow, who has been conducting virtual public hearings for grievances and plans on connecting block-level offices to the system soon. Inclusion could be improved by issuing guidelines in local languages and by providing closed caption options on the screen for those with speech and hearing difficulties. 

The future of virtual hearings

Going forward, as ERCs conduct more virtual hearings, special attention is required for data security and privacy since all hearings are currently being held on third party software platforms. Some best practices for virtual hearings include the use of visual aids, sharing relevant case documents beforehand, having provision for taking in oral comments, and conducting participant surveys. Live question and answer sessions greatly help in enriching the process, over and above written or oral submissions, as was seen in a recent public hearing conducted by the Uttar Pradesh ERC. 

So far, we have discussed how virtual hearings have proven useful for regulatory hearings in the electricity sector and how they could be improved in the future. Online hearings might be effective in ensuring a big turnout in case of city development projects as well. But it is important to note that physical hearings are still pertinent in other situations and traditional physical gatherings can have more meaningful impact. This is especially true for environmental clearance-related consultation processes for large infrastructure projects that are situated in remote locations of the country with little to no access to technology.

Given this word of caution, we must pause to appreciate the introduction of virtual modes of operation by ERCs. Good practices such as e-filing systems and live streaming of court hearings are already being adopted across ERCs. These are positive steps and make a stronger case for continuation of a process that emerged out of a contingency situation. 

Online public consultation processes, if held diligently, can reduce logistical constraints and such processes can further be used for committee meetings and training workshops. While virtual processes continue, we must focus on improving them for greater public participation. This essentially means continuing with remote participation options along with physical hearings, continuing live streaming facilities, and making these processes accessible and inclusive to all participants.