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Afghans learn to hate their electric company

Posted: July 20, 2011 - 9:05pm

In one dramatic way, Afghans appear to have entered the modern age. Like utility customers everywhere in the world, they have come to hate the electric company that, they complain, not only provides poor service but also appears to be billing them in a capricious manner.

“Come and look at my bills,” said Mir Hussein, as he waited outside a bank office to dispute his electric bill. “I’ve been charged $1.50 for one period and $150 for another for the same amount of electricity,” he fumed.

The problem, he claimed, is the new computerized billing system that has been implemented by the electric utility, replacing the previous method of maintaining individual log books.

Now, Hussein complained, bills vary widely, and there’s no way to verify the actual amount of electricity used.

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

Another ratepayer in Kabul had a similar complaint.

Khair Khana resident Nurullah said: “In the past 30 years, my electricity consumption never cost more than $10 for a given two-month period, but since the new billing system was set up, the cost of one period has been calculated as high as $300. Yet my consumption remains the same as it was before.”

Some say the errors are caused by a technical glitch. But others see a more sinister cause: users being overcharged by unscrupulous officials looking to skim off some of the extra charges.

Public anger has reached a level where Abdul Razaq Samadi, the head of the national electricity agency, was called before the upper house of parliament to explain what was going on.

“We accept that electricity officials do make some errors in their calculations,” he testified.

But, like utility officials everywhere, Samadi insisted that the company’s metering system was largely accurate.

Shekib Ahmad Nesar, who heads the electricity department for Kabul, said the new digital meters are more accurate that the analog devices they replaced, which were easily tampered with.

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

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

But filing a complaint about your electric bill isn’t easy. It involves a number of time-consuming visits to a series of offices. Many just decide to pay up.

Kabul resident Nematullah spent several days trying to find out why his bill was so high. He said he eventually got them to admit they had charged him for almost twice as much power as he had used.

“They apologized 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 embezzle your money.”

Of course, for much of the country, electricity at any cost is an unimagined luxury. Officials say only 36 percent of the population has access to electricity.

• Danishju is a reporter in Afghanistan for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.

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