The Bombay High Court on Tuesday disposed of two PILs seeking directions for relief against the allegedly inflated and exorbitant electricity bills received during the period of lockdown, between March and May.
Division bench of Justice Prasanna B Varale and Justice Milind J Jadhav passed two separate orders disposing of the PILs but there were several common contentions raised by both Mahibub Shaikh from Solapur and Ravindra Desai from Mumbai against power companies. While Shaikh is editor of a regional newspaper "Bandhuprem" in Solapur and Desai is a businessman from Mulund.
Senior Advocate AV Anturkar appeared on behalf of Mahibub Shaikh and submitted that due to the unforeseen situation of the Covid-19 pandemic, Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission directed the suspension of activities related to power supply. Moreover, relying on a newspaper report, Anturkar contended that due to the said suspension of activities, bills were generated on average basis and they were issued to the consumers.
There is no proper assessment and exorbitant bills are issued, the respondent authorities should be directed to extend the benefit of exemption/waiver of fixed charges and/or permit the consumer to pay electricity bills in easy installments, Antrurkar argued.
MSEDCL's counsel Advocate Kiran Gandhi vehemently countered the submissions of petitioner's counsel and submitted that the pandemic situation was considered and the service providers i.e. regulators have initially issued the electricity bills on average consumption of three months. Thereafter, by issuing various notifications the public general was made aware of an exercise of calculating the units and issuing the energy bills, Gandhi said.
The bench noted-
"At this stage, we are not inclined to enter in these issues which are certainly disputed facts and more particularly, as it is not in dispute that there is grievance redressal mechanism being provided for the consumers and this mechanism is three tier system i.e. firstly a consumers can approach the Internal Grievance Redressal Forum (IGRF) submitting their grievances. On a decision of this forum, if a party is aggrieved, there is another remedy available in the form of filing an appeal to Consumer Grievance Redressal Forum (CGRF) and again if the consumer is aggrieved by the decision of the appellate forum, the consumer can approach the last authority i.e. the Electricity Ombudsman."
When a specific query was put to the petitioner's counsel as to whether the petitioner had approached the first forum itself i.e. IGRF raised the grievance in respect of the energy bill, then he submitted that no such exercise was undertaken by the petitioner till filing of the petition.
With regard to the prayers in Shaikh's PIL, Court observed-
"On the backdrop of the grievance raised in the petition in respect of alleged exorbitant electricity bill, we are of the clear opinion that only prayer clause 'A' would be a substantive prayer which falls for consideration of this Court.
In so far as prayer clause 'B' is concerned, it clearly is in the nature of interfering in a policy decision, namely, fixing a tariff for consumption of electrical energy and no reason is coming forth in the petition or from the submissions of the learned Counsel appearing for the petitioner permitting this Court to undertake the exercise of interference in a policy decision of the State. As such, we are not inclined to consider prayer 'B'.
Similarly, prayer clause 'C' is only on the basis of an assumption that there is some mischief in calculation of the energy consumption and the bills being issued for consumption of energy. There are only certain general submissions in the petition as such, even this prayer 'C' cannot be considered by this Court."
Whereas, appearing on behalf of petitioner Ravindra Desai, Advocate Vishal Saxena submitted that though the consumption of electrical energy is at a lower side, MSEDCL issued a bill which is not as per the consumption of the energy.
The bench pointed to the relationship between the petitioner and respondent MSEDCL, which is that of a consumer and a service provider and noted the objection raised by MSEDCL's counsel asking the bench not to entertain the present petition as public interest litigation.
Moreover, Court noted that a grievance regarding the inflated bills was raised by the petitioner (Desai) four days before he filed the PIL.
The bench said-
"The Electricity Act, 2003 provides the grievance redressal mechanism and any grievance submitted to Respondent No.2 – MSEDCL being the authority to decide such grievances, it was expected of the petitioner to wait for a reasonable time awaiting the decision on the application but it seems that in an unjustified hurry the petitioner has approached this Court within four days of submission of the application to grievance redressal forum."
Also, there was no mention in the petition of submitting the application to MSEDCL and it was only revealed on a query to the petitioner's counsel by the Court. Court observed-
"Considering the sequence of events referred above and the factual scenario, we are of the opinion that without going into the controversy whether the petition is maintainable as public interest litigation or not, at this stage the issue raised in the petition can be taken care of with certain directions and the petition itself can be disposed of."
Thus, both petitioners were granted liberty to approach respective authorities for the alleged inflated bills they received and the PILs were disposed of.
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