The Ministry of Power (MoP) has recently notified the Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020, laying down the minimum standards of service for power supply to consumers across the country. The rules, which put consumers at the centre, marks a paradigm shift in policy planning in the power sector by putting consumers at the centre.
In an official release by the ministry, R.K. Singh, union minister of state – independent charge –, for power and new and renewable energy, said, “These Rules emanate from the conviction that the power systems exist to serve the consumers and the consumers have the right to get reliable services and quality electricity. The distribution companies across the country are monopolies, whether government or private, and the consumer has no alternative. Therefore, it was necessary that the consumers’ rights be laid down in rules and a system for the enforcement of these rights be put in place.”
A draft version of the rules was floated in September 2020, and they are expected to benefit about 300 million existing and prospective consumers in the country. With these rules, the government also hopes to improve the ease of doing business across the country. Their implementation will ensure that new electricity connections, refunds and other services are provided in a time-bound manner, and wilful defaults are penalised.
The key provisions of the Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020 are:
- Rights and obligations: As per the rules, it is the duty of every distribution licensee to supply electricity on request made by an owner or occupier of any premises in line with the provisions of the Electricity Act, 2003. It is the right of the consumer to get minimum standards of service from the distribution licensee.
- Release/Modification of electricity connections: Discoms should formulate transparent, simple and time-bound processes for the release of new connections or modification of existing ones. Further, consumers should have an option for online application download and submission. The maximum time to provide a new connection and modify an existing one is seven days in metro cities, 15 days in other municipal areas and 30 days in rural areas.
- Metering: No connection will be given without a meter and the meters will be either smart prepayment meters or prepayment meters. Any exception to the smart meter or prepayment meter will have to be duly approved by the commission after proper justification. At the time of seeking a new connection, consumers will have the option to either purchase the meter, a miniature circuit breaker and associated equipment, or procure it from the discom on payment of applicable charges. Further, the rules provide provisions for testing of meters and replacement of defective or burnt or stolen meters.
- Supply reliability: The rules specify that the distribution licensee will supply 24×7 power to all consumers. However, the state electricity regulatory commissions (SERCs) have been given an option to specify lower hours of supply for some consumer categories such as agricultural consumers (this relaxation has been allowed as pumps need to run 24×7 for supplying water to the fields). The distribution licensee is also required to devise an automated mechanism for monitoring and restoring outages.
- Consumers as prosumers: Given the growth of rooftop solar, many consumers are transforming into prosumers by generating distributed renewable energy on their premises. Therefore, the rules mandate that the distribution licensee should facilitate the setting up of renewable energy generation systems at prosumers’ premises by creating an online portal for applications for installation, interconnection and metering. The SERCs have been directed to notify related regulations within six months of issuance of these rules. Net metering can be implemented for loads up to 10 kW and for gross metering for loads above 10 kW.
- Standards of performance and compensation: SERCs are required to notify performance standards for the distribution licensees, and compensation will be paid to consumers by the licensees for the violation of these standards. Consumers will be automatically compensated for those parameters that can be monitored remotely. The standards of performance for which the compensation is required to be paid by the distribution licensee include no supply to a consumer beyond a particular duration to be specified by the SERC; number of interruptions in supply beyond the limit specified by the SERC; time taken for connection, disconnection, reconnection and shifting; time taken for change in the consumer category and load; time taken for change in consumer details; time taken for the replacement of defective meters; time period during which bills are served; and time period for resolving voltage-related and bill-related complaints. The distribution licensee, within six months from the date of notification of the regulations by the SERC, should create an online facility, through which consumers may register and claim the compensation amount.
- Others: Some of the other provisions in the rules relate to the setting up of a call centre and a grievance redressal mechanism. Distribution licensees are required to establish a centralised 24×7 toll-free call centre and provide all services through a common customer relations manager. Further, the consumer grievance redressal forum must include consumer and prosumer representatives. The consumer grievance redressal mechanism has been made easy by adding multiple layers, and the number of consumer representatives has been increased from one to four. In addition, the licensee is required to specify the time within which various types of grievances are to be resolved by the different levels of the forum with the maximum timeline being 45 days.
- Other general provisions include online access to various services such as application submission, payment of bills, status of complaints, etc.; provision of all services to senior citizens at their doorstep; and dissemination of information about scheduled and unscheduled power outages to consumers along with the estimated time for restoration.
The notification of the Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020, is a positive step by the ministry to ensure that consumers get superior services from discoms. The provisions related to 24×7 power supply and timely release of connections with smart meters are praiseworthy, especially given that the power supply across customer categories stands at nearly 17 hours per day as per a recent report released by NITI Aayog in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation and Smart Power India (the report evaluates the electricity access status in India across 10 states and 25 distribution utilities). The report further highlighted that 85 per cent of customers had a metered electricity connection; 83 per cent of household customers had access to electricity; and 66 per cent of those surveyed were satisfied. While these figures indicate that significant progress has been made by the distribution licensees in improving the power supply, there is still tremendous scope for improvement. Meanwhile, the provision regarding compensation in case of power cuts beyond a specific duration and delays in connection/reconnection also augurs well for consumers in rural/ semi-urban areas where lengthy unscheduled outages are common.
However, industry experts believe that these rules may infringe upon the jurisdiction of SERCs, which typically notify and track distribution licensees’ standards of performance. Given the concurrent nature of electricity, both the centre and states can make laws on the subject, but ultimately their implementation is the prerogative of state discoms. As per the MoP, SERCs can specify stricter timelines and service quality parameters, but cannot relax these rights of consumers. Going forward, distribution licensees need to step up in order to meet these norms and not just provide reliable quality power supply to consumers, but improve a host of other services as well.