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Report

Making Electricity Bills Consumer FriendlyA Tamil Nadu Case Study

Kanika Balani, Pavithra Ramesh, and Prateek Aggarwal
March 2021 | Power Sector

Suggested citation: Balani, Kanika, Pavithra Ramesh, and Prateek Aggarwal. 2020. Making Electricity Bills Consumer Friendly: A Tamil Nadu Case Study. CAG-CEEW report. New Delhi: Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

Overview

Published in collaboration with the Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), this case study explores the role of electricity bills in enhancing information disclosure practices of electricity distribution companies (discoms) and improving public participation in decision-making. It explores the case of Tamil Nadu, where a unique bill format ‒ the white meter card (WMC) – is used by the state’s discom to inform domestic consumers of their energy usage and applicable charges. The inferences are based on a survey and focused group discussions involving 250 consumers across nine districts, including Chennai, Vellore, Trichy, and Salem. Further, based on a review of bill formats used by 26 Indian utilities and on good practices from abroad, it proposes three new progressive and consumer-friendly model bill designs that can be adopted not just in Tamil Nadu, but in other states too.

Key Highlights

  • Electricity bill types vary across India and include both physical and online formats. The majority of consumers are issued physical bills - either spot bills or mailed bills (in an elaborate A4 size format).
  • State Electricity Supply Codes generally specify what information should be provided in electricity bills, but Tamil Nadu’s Supply Code has not defined a comprehensive list of bill elements.

Consumer feedback on Tamil Nadu’s electricity bills

  • The most popular sources of billing information in Tamil Nadu are White meter cards (WMC) and an SMS service, followed by an online account summary and an email bill.
  • The WMC does not show the proper break-up of all the charges in the bill, along with the tariff slabs and subsidy details. The online account summary is a bit more detailed, but it is accessed by only a fourth of consumers in the state.
  • Most respondents find the online account summary easy to understand and informative, but it is also criticised for being cluttered. Further, as it provides information in English, it poses a barrier to consumers who only speak Tamil. The WMC is preferred by respondents for its ease of access in a physical form.
  • 47 per cent of the respondents find it difficult to understand their electricity bills due to missing information, inconsistencies in the recorded meter reading, and inadequate information in the WMC.
  • Nearly one-third of the respondents did not know how slab-wise charges are calculated.
  • Over 95 per cent of respondents contact the local discom office regarding quality, reliability, metering, and billing issues, instead of dialing the discom’s helpline or using other complaint redressal mechanisms.

Respondents find online account summary easier to understand and informative over WMC

Respondents find online account summary easier to understand and informative over WMC

Source: Authors’ analysis

  • A majority of respondents want more details to be added in both their WMC and online account summary. As many as 79 per cent want to see a common format used for both the physical and online versions of the bill.
  • 35 per cent of consumers feel the bill should carry information in a bilingual format (Tamil and English) and 60 per cent say it should be reader-friendly and have a comprehensive visual representation.
  • Close to 80 per cent of the groups that took part in the focused group discussions remarked that informative electricity bills would certainly encourage consumers to take an interest in or participate in the electricity sector.
  • The low level of consumer awareness and understanding of electricity bills, grievance redressal mechanisms, and electricity tariffs in Tamil Nadu point to a dire need to redesign the current bill format.
  • The study showcases three informative and user-friendly model bills designed by the CAG-CEEW with the consumers’ preferences in mind. Although the report only shows sample bills in English, Tamil versions have also been created.

Format of sample designs

Format of sample designs

Source: Authors’ analysis. Note: The permanent consumer card will need to be periodically changed on the revision of tariffs by discoms

Key Recommendations

  • Improve transparency, increase information disclosure through bills from discoms, and improve consumer feedback through grievance redressal to build trust between utilities and consumers, and enhance service delivery.
  • Use digital messaging services such as WhatsApp to issue billing information to help discoms save the cost of printing physical bills like WMCs.
  • Include more progressive bill elements such as gross/net solar feed-in and contact details of grievance redressal authorities.
  • The Tamil Nadu Electricity Supply Code should include a comprehensive list of elements to be added to the electricity bill.

A new, informative, reader-friendly bill format should be introduced in Tamil Nadu to improve public participation by consumers and service delivery by the discom.

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