published 19 May 2008, MST

I am looking at my power bills of the last six months while writing this column.

At first blush, the white-and-orange piece of paper has a nice, reader-friendly layout and is laden with useful things. At the left side of the front page, you will see service information, billing information, and billing summary.

At the right side is some graphic image —a holiday greeting or a piece of energy trivia. Below the box is an energy-saving tip and the Web address of the Manila Electric Co., which consumers could supposedly go to if they wanted to get hold of more tips.

There is also a bar graph of the household’s energy consumption in the last 12 months, as well as an averaged-out consumption figure in terms of kilowatt hours (per month) and pesos (per day). I find this portion particularly helpful. It enables me to get a feel of how wise my family has become as an electricity user. From the peso value of my daily power usage, I am also able to compare the amount I spend on electricity relative to that which I spend on food and other basics.

More numbers are available at the back portion of the account statement.

Indeed, the more circumspect consumer will be delighted at the broken-down presentation of the many components of the delivery of power— from the generation, transmission, and the distribution stages. For example, from the summary at the front, one would know that generation costs take up more than half of the bill. Meralco takes pains to emphasize, through bold font, that only less than 20 percent goes to power distribution of which it is in charge.

It is nice knowing all these things. They make one feel as though one were in control. But now it is said that for all the headings, labels and numbers so beautifully splattered all over that piece of paper, we’ve been duped.

And the bill does not tell us that.

* * *

Do you know how it feels to have the Meralco guy to come to your house and, despite your protestations and pleadings (as the neighbors look on), cut off your electricity supply? Can you imagine the stigma of spending a day and a night in silence, heat and darkness knowing that people around you are going about their normal routine?

I’ve seen it happen.

Several years ago, when I was still living at my in-laws’ house, the power supply of one of the units in the compound beside us got disconnected. See, if you fail to make a payment on the due date as indicated in your bill, Meralco is quick to issue a Disconnection Notice a day or two after that date. You are given another five days to source the money to cover your payments, but if you still don’t make it, you can expect the Meralco service vehicle to stop by your place the morning after the day indicated in your notice. And it won’t be to say hello. You can only stop those guys from pulling out the plugs if you wave your machine-validated receipt that would overturn the disconnection dispatch order that brought them to your house in the first place.

That, my neighbor was not able to do. The fact was, they were really struggling to make ends meet. The father was a migrant worker whose remittances came sporadically. The mother worked as a secretary in an office in Quezon City, leaving their two teenaged daughters in charge of the house most of the day. That Monday, the mother was finally able to source payment for her power bill and so went to the Meralco branch before going to the office. She knew they were courting trouble because the notice gave them until that previous Friday to settle their bills.

And true enough, the service truck pulled into their gate after lunch. The girls insisted that their mother had already made the payment that morning but could not show any proof to support that claim. They phoned their mother so she could talk to the service guys herself. It was to no avail. They demanded the receipt and at that moment the mother wished for nothing more than to be able to crumple the receipt, stuff it into the receiver so it could go straight into the arrogant guy’s mouth for him to swallow. Apparently, these people in charge of disconnection had been so used to the drama of cutting off a household’s supply. The mother later on told me the men sounded as though they derived some sort of pleasure out of hearing the pleas of the consumers and then proceeding with the cutoff anyway, as though they were God dismissing a prayer.

From a corporate standpoint, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is a sound practice to make sure the revenues come at the time they are supposed to. It will be an ugly sight on the balance sheet should the company's receivables be bloated. This may even have a negative effect on their service quality since there would now be less available cash to use to ensure all systems are working properly.

Viewed from this angle, the five-day allowance after the notice of disconnection seems reasonable, although some would say the grace period should be longer.

But if you take into consideration revelations during last week’s Congressional hearings—which, by the way, should be attended instead by representatives of the country’s top auditing firms who would do a better job evaluating Meralco’s pricing scheme than politicians with questionable motives—you would now view this act differently. The gall to quickly punish poor people who cannot chalk up a few hundreds while systemically bleeding its customers dry!

Ultimately, the man on the street is not concerned about the power struggle and the cloud that envelopes the boardroom of Meralco. He only wants two things: that electricity become more accessible and that he is not duped in any manner. In the event power rates become too high and that he discovers that the power company unjustly enriches itself at his expense, he expects his government to protect his interest and step in. Of course, the idea is to ensure abusive practices are stopped and that energy reaches his household the most efficient way possible. The driving force should not be politics but public interest. Nothing more.

With public attention now fixed on Meralco, we all await our next electricity bills. Do we dare hope for lower rates? Then again, even if the amount we have to pay this month does go down, it may only be because the rainy season has begun, it is not as hot as it used to be, and our appliances do not have to work as hard. Maybe the numbers in our bills will tell us. Maybe not. Shall we ever really know?