Power-Crazy in Kabul

Wildly differing electricity bills from computerised system leave Afghan householders cross and confused.

Power-Crazy in Kabul

Wildly differing electricity bills from computerised system leave Afghan householders cross and confused.

“Come and look at my bills – I’ve been charged 1.5 dollars for one period and 150 dollars for another,” Mir Hussein said laughing. 

Mir Hussein had joined a queue outside the Pakhtany Bank in the Khair Khana district of the Afghan capital Kabul to pay his electricity bill, which these days is generated using a computerised system, rather than the old method of individual logbooks.

Since the change, many householders have found that their bills vary wildly, and complain that there is no way of verifying the actual levels of electricity they have used.

“What system? What computer? What accountants?” Mir Hussein asked.

Others standing in the queue for payment were angry and confused by what seemed like highly inflated billing. Discovering IWPR’s interest in their problems, they surrounded this reporter to tell their stories.

“Hey brother, where are you press people?” asked one man. “They’ve been skinning poor people.”

Khair Khana resident Nurullah said, “In the past 30 years, my electricity consumption never cost more than ten [US] dollars for a given [two-month] period, but since the new billing system was set up, the cost of one period has been calculated at 300 dollars, and 200 dollars for a second period. Yet my consumption remains the same as it was before.”

Under the old system, an inspector would go from house to house checking electricity meters in the presence of those who lived there. He would note down the amount used in a special book which the householder could then take to the bank and pay the bill.

Since computerisation was introduced in 2009, there is no on-site visit, and the first time householders learn what they are going to be charged is when they get the bill.

Bills often show them using unfeasibly large amounts of power, and while this may sometimes be due to technical error, many suspect they are being over-charged by unscrupulous officials keen to siphon off some money.

Public anger over the billing system is so widespread that the issue has been discussed on television, and the head of the national electricity agency, Abdul Razaq Samadi, was summoned to the upper house of parliament to be questioned about it.

“We accept that electricity officials do make some errors in their calculations,” he told the politicians. “The electricity directorate is prepared to pay the people’s money back.”

Samadi told IWPR that the computerised billing was still having teething troubles, but it was much better than the old system which relied on meters that were vulnerable to fraud. He said consumers might think they were being charged exorbitant amounts, but that was generally not the case.

Shekib Ahmad Nesar, who heads the electricity department for Kabul city, explained that new digital meters had replaced the old analogue type, which were easily tampered with.

“People fiddled their usage by a variety of methods, for instance by placing a magnet on the meter to make it run more slowly,” he said.

Nesar said another reason why consumers were charged so much was that their power lines and meters were sometimes located inside other properties, whose owners could be siphoning electricity and bumping up the usage of the meter owner.

He said 30,000 of the new digital meters had already been installed in Kabul, and 20,000 more were planned. He said the electricity department had a laboratory for testing meters, and 300 had been checked so far in the presence of householders who had filed complaints, and no problems identified.

“If anyone complains about their meters or bills, they can come to us and we will address their complaints,” he said.

People unhappy about their bills say complaining is not that easy, and involves time-consuming visits to a series of offices. Many just decide to pay up.

Kabul resident Nematullah spent three or four days trying to find out why he was paying so much, and eventually got officials to admit they had charged him for almost twice as much power as he had used.

“They apologised to me, saying they’d made a mistake entering the amount,” he said. “If you catch them out, they say it was a mistake, and if you don’t, they, they embezzle your money.”

Kabul at least has an mains network, unlike much of the rest of Afghanistan. Officials say only 36 per cent of people nationwide have access to electricity. (See Powers of Darkness in North Afghanistan on the intermittent supply in Mazar-e Sharif.

The capital used to get its power from the Naghlu and Sarobi hydroelectric schemes, but years of war damaged the machinery. The authorities are working to install new turbines at the two dams.

These days, most of Kabul’s electricity is imported, and the supply should in theory still be adequate for the city’s needs.

Local electricity officials say around 35 per cent of the urban area still lacks a mains supply, but Nesar said this was because of the uncontrolled building of new homes in areas with no mains connection. He added that it would take time to install the power lines and substations needed to bring electricity to these areas.

Khan Mohammad Danishju is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul

Pakistan, Afghanistan
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