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Meters read in delay: how people were left outside utilities subsidy

28.01.2021

 
Manana Vardiashvili

From November 1, the Government of Georgia launched the third phase of the Anti-Crisis Plan. According to the decision of the Government, under the Anti-Crisis Plan, the utility bills of the customers who consume less than 200 kilowatts of electricity and less than 200 cubic meters of natural gas per month will be covered by the State from November 2020 to February 2021. However, a large part of the population could not enjoy the benefits from the Utilities Subsidy Program introduced by the Government. 

As it appeared, in many cases, electricity and natural gas distribution companies read the meters not on the 30th day, as required by the regulation of the Georgian National Energy and Water Supply Regulatory Commission (GNERC), but on the 32nd and 33rd days, due to which many citizens were not able to stay within the limits set by the Government (200 kWh for electricity and 200 cbm for natural gas).

M.L., a resident of Tbilisi approached Human Rights Center (HRC). M.L. said she could no longer benefit from the Government Subsidy Program because of wrong reading the meter by the gas distribution company, Tbilisi Energy: an employee of Tbilisi Energy first read the gas meter installed in the apartment of M.L. on November 12, and the next time it was read  on the 32nd day, December 14, due to which the gas consumption exceeded the limit of 200 cubic meters by 16 cubic meters.  

"Many people have not been able to benefit from the Utilities Subsidy Program due to the delay in reading the meters by the gas and electricity distribution companies. HRC were approached by several citizens  with such a complaint,” says Eka Lomidze, a lawyer with HRC.

According to her, now when a large part of the population has lost jobs or is on unpaid leave due to the restrictions imposed because of the Coronavirus pandemic, or when people, due to the restrictions, travel by private cars and taxis that is associated with higher costs, people especially need the targeted aid allocated by the State. The State aid should not be superficial, nor should GNERC allow any company to intentionally impede the access of people to such an aid.

Due to the delay in reading the meters by the gas and electricity distribution companies, many people were left beyond the Utilities Subsidy State Program, and  the fact was also acknowledged by GNERC as number of citizens filed complaints with  the Commission. GNERC  also published the Statement and provided clarifications to the distribution companies that the meters should be read once a month in observance of the date of reading, and the meters read in violation should be corrected.

The Energy Ombudsman, Salome Vardiashvili does not deny the existence of the problem either: „Sometimes it was the fault of the companies, sometimes it was the fault of the customers. Many people have a natural gas meter installed in the apartments and they had to send the reading  to the company employee by SMS and the consumers were sending in the reading late. Sometimes company employees were reading meters late. I cannot say that this was a deliberate action on the part of the companies: normally  they should not have such an interest as  200 cbm or 200 kWh in terms of payment is a guaranteed amount covered by the State. However, we have to admit that there really  was a systemic problem. Many people have appealed to us with such a complaint. GNERC has particularly warned the companies. Moreover, if any citizen identifies some irregularities on the part of the companies and applies to us, we shall hear the application on the individual basis and in the case of violation we shall remedy it."

The HRC lawyer, Eka Lomidze states that the delay in reading the meters on the part of the companies could not even be helped by the special instructions from GNERC: the "irregularities" continued also in December:  Telasi JSC read the meter of I.G. on November 26, 2020, and the next time Telasi read it on the 33rd day, December 29, due to which I.G. could not enjoy the benefits of the Subsidy Program.

"This is a violation indicating the arbitrariness of the distribution company and the inefficiency of GNERC. The offer from the Energy Ombudsman is not efficient either as the Office of the Energy Ombudsman requires the citizens to submit  signed applications electronically. "Under the conditions of the pandemic, many persons do not have access to the Internet and the opportunity to print an application, sign and scan it," says Lomidze. 

HRC has already appealed to GNERC, the Energy Ombudsman and the Coordinating Council to hear the cases of the consumers left beyond  the Utilities Subsidy Program due to reading the meters in violation by the distribution companies. HRC urges the State to protect the rights of consumers, to be more efficient with respect to the distribution companies, to exercise the powers conferred by the law and hold companies accountable for non-compliance with the regulatory norms set by the Commission. HRC is now awaiting the decision of GNERC on the appeal and the response of the Energy Ombudsman. 

Human Rights Center is implementing the project "Free Legal Advocacy and Human Rights Monitoring after the Coronavirus Pandemic" with the assistance of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Georgia. 

The aim of the project is to identify the possible violations of human rights  during the state of emergency announced  for the prevention of the spread of the coronavirus and in the post-pandemic period and to raise awareness about the possible violations in Tbilisi and five regions of Georgia: Shida Kartli, Kakheti, Kvemo Kartli, Imereti and  Samegrelo.

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