Tajik Power Company Calls in Debts

Higher electricity bills and tougher penalties for arrears are putting pressure on household consumers. By Nazarali Pirnazarov in Dushanbe

Tajik Power Company Calls in Debts

Higher electricity bills and tougher penalties for arrears are putting pressure on household consumers. By Nazarali Pirnazarov in Dushanbe

Although winter power cuts in Tajikistan have ended earlier than expected, electricity users are still having to economise due to higher prices and tougher rules on late payment.

On March 22, the state power company Barqi Tojik announced that the restrictions in place since November had been lifted 40 days earlier than expected. The announcement was timed to coincide with the start of celebrations for Navruz, the traditional new year.

The restrictions meant electricity was limited to ten hours a day everywhere, with the exception of a few large towns. Tajikistan has imposed seasonal power cuts for several years as it relies mainly on hydroelectricity, and in winter water levels are lower while consumption increases.

Barqi Tojik said it was possible to restore the full supply because water levels in the Nurek reservoir had proved adequate. The Nurek dam generates about 70 per cent of Tajikistan’s electricity. Other reasons for the improvement, it said, were the launch of the Sangtuda-1 power station in January 2009, and the nationwide switchover to energy-saving light bulbs.

Although customers were relieved to hear the news, they are under greater pressure than ever to watch their electricity consumption, as prices increased dramatically at the beginning of the year – by 20 per cent for domestic consumers and up to 25 per cent for others.

The state electricity company is also taking tougher action to ensure consumers pay their bills. Late payment will incur a fine, while those who persistently fail to pay will have their supply cut off. Barqi Tojik head Abdullo Yorov has set a target of 90 per cent collection for payments due this year.

The company’s chief press officer, Nozirjon Yodgori told IWPR that as of January, unpaid bills amounted to 114 million US dollars.

However, IWPR enquiries suggest the penalties will not be applied evenly, and that householders will be in the first line of fire.

A Barqi Tojik representative who spoke on condition of anonymity told IWPR that domestic consumers are the only group the company can really put pressure on. Two major customers, the state-owned aluminium plant at Tursunzoda and the water ministry, which arranges irrigation for farmers around the country, are virtually untouchable because their economic role is so essential.

Aluminium production is hugely energy-hungry – the availability of cheap hydroelectricity was the reason the Soviet authorities decided to site the plant in Tajikistan in the first place. The giant Tursunzade plant continues to be a major source of foreign currency which cash-strapped Tajikistan can ill afford to do without, so switching off the power is not really an option.

Cotton is another important export earner, and other forms of agriculture are important for the domestic market. Providing water for irrigation requires electrically-powered pumps to be running. As the Barqi Tojik representative member said, “If we cut them off, the irrigation season will be disrupted and that in turn will have a negative impact on the harvest.”

Householders, meanwhile, say they are being hard hit by the rise in prices. In Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet republics, more than half the population lives on less than two dollars a day, the measure the World Bank uses to define poverty. Even a modest increase in outlay leaves many households struggling.

Rustam Saidov, from Dushanbe, said his family was trying to limit electricity usage to the minimum.

“Instead of two heaters I now use one, and I use one lighbulb in the living room instead of four. I used to buy 100-watt bulbs, and now I use 60-watt,” he said.

Saadullo Abdullo, who lives in Rudaki, 15 kilometres from the capital, earns 130 dollars a month to provide for his wife and three children, and supplements this by raising livestock and growing vegetables. He nearly had his electricity cut off because he owed 20 somonis, the equivalent of four dollars.

“I have to deny myself certain things and economise,” he said.

Alisher, by contrast, is relatively comfortably off as a businessman in Dushanbe. But even he is feeling the pinch. He used to spend about 50 dollars a month on electricity bills, but since January this has more than doubled to reach nearly 130 dollars.

“I’ve told all my family to economise,” he told IWPPR. “But how can we not heat the house while the weather is still cold. And I have small children who could fall ill. So we’re having to save on other things.”

A representative of Energosbyt, the company that collects electricity payments, confirmed that customers were having difficulty keeping up with payments.

“We are not meeting our collection quota,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Our staff spend days going door to door demanding payment, but people’s purchasing power has fallen sharply compared with last year. People don’t have any money.”

As a result, he said, “We are forced to cut off homes from the electricity supply.” He added that this particularly affected rural areas.

Dushanbe resident Saodat said payment collectors were swift to cut people off even for a small amount of arrears.

“Before my very eyes, [they] cut off the power from my neighbour’s house, who owed no more than 50 somoni,” she said. “Pleas or promises to clear the debt quickly didn’t work. She works as a cleaner at the hospital and earns a meagre wage. I lent her the money myself sp she could pay the debt. She has three small children – how can she get by with no electricity, when there’s no gas either. She can’t cook or wash, poor thing.”

Saodat was not enthusiastic about the resumption of 24-hour electricity supplies when “they haven’t thought about how the poor are going to pay for it”.

This spring, wage-earners have faced an additional dent in their income due to a government campaign encouraging everyone to buy shares in the Roghun hydroelectric project, with the aim of raising some 600 million dollars to finish the dam and start generating electricity.

According to a rough guide used by state institutions and companies, people are being asked to buy shares to a value of approximately one month’s wage. IWPR reported earlier that some people said they were being coerced into buying the shares or into making a straight donation, neither of which they could afford. (See Concern at Funding Scheme for Giant Tajik Dam, RCA No. 599, 30-Dec-09.)

Many of the people interviewed for this report said the share purchases had compounded their problems, making it harder for them to meet the higher electricity bills.

The Energosbyt representative believes the cost of the shares is contributing to unpaid energy bills.

“Literally everyone is being forced to hand over their salaries to buy shares, and that’s why people are becoming impoverished,” he said.

Nazarali Pirnazarov is a Tajikistan correspondent for the Bishkek-based CA-News news agency.

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