Most of the country’s urban local bodies (ULBs) lack an automated billing mechanism to levy and collect user charges for water supply and sewerage services. Inefficient billing and collection practices not only lead to poor recovery of operations and maintenance costs, but also increase the dependence on government and multilateral funding.
Even in bigger cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai, ULBs are facing the issue of inadequate cost recovery. Lower revenue collection puts the creditworthiness of municipal agencies at risk, thus affecting their bankability and ability to tap into financial markets. However, the situation is slowly changing with several ULBs adopting advanced automated mechanisms to levy and collect user charges. A case in point is the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), which deployed a revenue management system (RMS) on its web portal in 2012 to improve its revenue collection. The aim was to replace the manual billing process with advanced digitalised metering, billing and collection processes.
Prior to this, the utility’s revenue collection was highly inefficient due to issues such as inconsistent billing cycles, limited collection centres, incomplete records of properties and customers, and an obsolete grievance redressal system. Other challenges faced by the civic agency included complex and time-consuming processes, and lack of an up-to-date data collection system.
Over the past five to six years, the RMS has improved DJB’s revenue collection, service delivery and decision-making; increased the number of billed connections; and reduced tax evasion.
Salient features of DJB’s RMS
The RMS is a multilevel management system, which automates the different functions across DJB. The system comprises an intranet portal, mobile applications (separate for meter readers and customers) and an internet portal. It has been developed with technical assistance from Tata Consultancy Services. A customer care and billing software has been developed by Oracle Customer Care and Billing 2.3 (CC&B) platform at the National Information Centre, Shastri Park, for performing the metering, billing, collection and grievance redressal functions. At the centre, information related to outstanding bills, payment receipts and customer complaints is collated. Further, a standardised online database of customers (with their address, number of metering connections, among other details) is prepared by mapping of customers using existing the geographic information system (GIS) maps. The collated information can be accessed by the management at DJB’s headquarters as well as at 40 zonal offices through the portal as it is integrated through servers. Other than this, a data recovery site has also been established at Hyderabad to ensure data security.
Through this software, DJB manages the revenue collection process efficiently as the tasks of viewing and printing of bills, generating receipts and tracking customer grievances are performed through a single dashboard. The system also provides other value-added services such as SMS alerts, payment receipts and automated notices for late payments and defaulters. Other software used in the system include Oracle weblogic server, Oracle database, Oracle business intelligence enterprise edition and mobile devices, based on Android and BusyBox. DJB has deployed mobile tablets to capture the digital images of meters through GIS.
For customers, the portal enables filling of applications for new water or sewerage connections, making requests for disconnection and mutation online, viewing bill details and making payments besides registering grievances and tracking their status.
To make bill payments, facilities for net banking and payment through debit/credit cards are available. For this, DJB has integrated with third parties such as banks, namely, the Corporation Bank (118 branches), Kotak Mahindra Bank, IDBI Bank (32 branches) and Allahabad Bank (69 branches). Further, facilities of payment gateways, e-kiosks (40) and mobile wallet applications have also been introduced.
Presently, the portal is being upgraded from the CC&B 2.3 version to the 2.5 version for additional features. The upgradation works are being carried out by Wipro and are expected to be completed by March 2023. As part of the upgradation works, the existing universal content measuring and data entry portal, hardware and servers will also be upgraded. The water agency is also planning to commence spot collections at premises through hand-held devices.
Experience so far: Improved billing accuracy, collection efficiency and revenues
After the adoption of the RMS, water meters are read through digital machines as opposed to being read manually. There are about 900 meter readers who provide the door-to-door billing facility with the help of hand-held machines. Customers can now pay their water bills through an online portal, payment kiosks or mobile wallets. All functions including new connections, disconnections and mutations have been facilitated online, thereby completely eliminating manual processes.
The RMS has helped DJB improve its billing accuracy. Earlier, only 40 per cent of the customers were billed on the basis of actual consumption while the rest were billed on an ad hoc basis. Today, about 90 per cent of the customers are billed on their actual consumption and the remaining 10 per cent are charged the average of their actual consumption. The civic agency’s customer base has also expanded from 2.25 million to over 2.6 million customers post the development of the RMS. DJB has set up a dedicated data centre for collecting real-time data on consumption, billing, payment, etc. The RMS has led to an increase in the number of billing cycles and active connections, and has improved revenue generation. During the first billing cycle of 2016-17, the active connection numbers (KNOs) stood at 2.05 million. During the year, 1,786,059 bills were generated, registering a billing percentage of 87.1 per cent. In 2017-18, the active number of KNOs stood at 2.24 million during the sixth round of the billing cycle and the total quantity billed stood at 421 million gallons per day (mgd). During April-December 2018-19, the active number of KNOs increased further to 2.31 million while the quantity billed stood at 421 mgd.
During the period 2012-13 to 2017-18, DJB’s revenue collection increased from Rs 10.24 billion to Rs 16.9 billion, registering a compound annual growth rate of 10.6 per cent. The total revenue collection stood at Rs 12.53 billion for the April-December period of 2018-19.
Benefits of RMS to customers and utilities
Some of the specific advantages of the RMS for customers are billing services at the doorstep, on-the-spot and regular billing, grievance redressal, and online/omnipresent payment outlets. Also, customers can get real-time information on pending bills which can be paid any time, irrespective location, thereby improving collection efficiency. Availability of flexible modes of payment also reduces the chances of default as customers no longer need to visit the DJB branch for this purpose. Further, the system also generates reports such as the customer density report (with high and low density areas coloured with dark and light colours respectively) and no house connection (houses with no meter installed) report for understanding customer consumption patterns and expected demand. This helps DJB in formulating plans and projects for water supply and sewerage infrastructure. Besides, hand-held devices have been deployed to ensure accuracy in capturing meter readings. This helps in reducing the gap between actual water supplied and the volume billed. Compilation of data at a central point also eliminates the need for reconciliation of data recorded at zonal offices and at the headquarters. Further, the RMS facilitates decentralised decision-making by ensuring that information and knowledge are readily available and accessible at zonal levels.
Other key benefits for DJB include improved decision-making, efficient revenue management, better service delivery, higher revenue collection, reduced tax evasions and increased number of customers.
The digitalisation of different municipal functions through the adoption of the RMS has been one of the key revenue enhancement strategies adopted by DJB. It has not only helped the utility but also customers by offering them a seamless online experience.
Nevertheless, DJB faced several issues and challenges in the implementation of the RMS. These include data migration of a large legacy system, data cleansing, staff training and unavailability of certain Oracle modules. The successful implementation of the system has helped DJB strengthen municipal finances and facilitated effective delivery of services. To further enhance revenue collection, RMS 2.0 is being developed by the board.
However, the success of these initiatives will depend on the capacity and financial health of utilities and local bodies, quality of manpower, rational tariff structures, and customer awareness and adaptability to new technologies.