Tens of millions of poor people living in rural Bangladesh have to pay more than their relatively well-off peers in cities for power because of discriminatory tariffs imposed by the Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission.

The commission in its latest tariff slabs announced in 2017 determined that all six distributors but the Rural Electrification Board must charge Tk 3.50 per unit of power for lifeline consumers.

A lifeline consumer is defined by the BERC as one who consumes below 50 units a month, representing the poorest segment of power consumers.

The energy regulatory body said that the REB, which is responsible for electrification of villages and areas outside of metropolitan cities, can charge lifeline consumers more than the fixed price in line with its needs.

‘This is illegal. This is unconstitutional,’ Consumers Association of Bangladesh energy adviser Professor Shamsul Alam told New Age.

The average REB lifeline charge is Tk 3.78 for each unit of power whereas all five other distributors charge Tk 3.50 per unit. 

The REB operates through 80 consumer cooperative subsidiaries, called Palli Bidyut Samities (rural electricity association), some of which sell each unit of electricity for up to Tk 3.87.

About 60 per cent of some 2.5 crore REB power consumers are poor enough to be compelled to keep their monthly power consumption below 50 units, according to REB.

The lifeline consumers account for 24 per cent of REB’s annual sales.

The REB, a profit-making government concern, is the largest single power distributor of the country through which the government supplies 50 per cent of power produced in the country.

REB chairman retired Major General Moin Uddin said that their lifeline charges were fixed by PBSs in accordance with the BERC instruction to meet their needs.

‘We are just following orders,’ said Moin Uddin.

According to Professor Shamsul Alam, the money the government makes illegally squeezing the poor is rather insignificant, especially when compared to its annual investment of Tk 60 billion in the power sector, including Tk 8 billion paid in subsidy.

‘The government earns only about Tk 300 crore from the extra charge,’ said Shamsul Alam.

‘The government can easily do without it,’ he viewed.

The prime minister often takes credit for favouring the poor and the disadvantaged sections by subsidising the power sector but experts have long argued that the government’s power and energy policy is rather ‘pro-corporate’ or ‘pro-rich.’

‘The poor have never enjoyed benefits of power subsidies rather always paid for wrong policies and corrupt practices in the sector,’ said Professor Anu Muhammad.

The member-secretary of the national committee to protect oil, gas, mineral resources, power and ports said, it has been a kind of tradition in Bangladesh that resources are distributed mainly among privileged groups while the poor suffer silently.

An analysis of the rural electrification board’s PBS-wise lifeline tariff data shows, to some extent, reasons that give rise to such harsh criticism of the government policy.

Only five out of the 80 PBSs charge lifeline  consumers Tk 3.50 per unit and three of them are in Dhaka.

The two other rural electricity associations are in Gazipur and Mymensingh. 

Experts say that the poor living in these three districts are relatively doing better than their peers in outlying districts because of better economic opportunities but still they enjoy the lowest lifeline charge.

At least 29 PBSs charge lifeline consumers Tk 3.85 for each unit of electricity, the second highest power tariff rate in the country.

The districts under this tariff rate include some of the poorest ones in Bangladesh like Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Gaibandha, Dinajpur, Joypurhat, Thakurgaon, Jamalpur and Sunamganj.

At the end of 2016, the World Bank ranked these districts among the worst poverty-hit areas where up to 70 per cent of the population were trapped in the poverty cycle in one way or another.

The Jamalpur district is well-known among poverty and climate researchers for regular migration of people out of the district to metropolitan cities in search of economic opportunities to escape poverty.

Severe river erosion renders large numbers of people landless in Jamalpur almost every year.

In Joypurhat, another district known for its poverty and lack of economic opportunities, the lifeline consumers pay Tk 3.85 per unit.

Joypurhat stands out in the country’s poverty landscape with dozens of sad stories in which people sold their kidneys or part of their livers in a desperate bid to get out of poverty.

Barishal, Meherpur and Chandpur are the districts where the lifeline charge is the highest in the country.

The lifeline consumers in the districts pay Tk 3.87 for each unit of power.

The WB identified Barishal and Chandpur among the worst poverty-stricken areas in the country’s southern region where erosion and other natural disasters take toll on people regularly.

Besides the lifeline rates, the BERC has power tariffs fixed for domestic consumption under six slabs which are evenly applied by all six distribution companies across the country.

Thus, a large disparity in power prices exists only for the lifeline consumers and in the poorest areas.

‘The poor have always paid more than the rich in the country for purchasing power,’ BERC member Mizanur Rahman told New Age.

In the 2017 tariff slabs the BERC tried to bring the price disparity to a tolerable level, he said.

‘We could not remove it at one go because of its possible impact on revenue generation,’ said Mizan.

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