BERC law amendment: Consumer interest to be undermined further

Government solely imported oil as of now that made it somewhat accountable to the consumer. If it is imported by the private sector, that accountability will no longer exist

Government had constituted Bangladesh Regulatory Commission (BERC) to bring transparency and accountability in the power sector and to protect the interests of consumers. But the agency had been kept inert for so long. Now it has been made completely powerless by the amendment of the law.

The Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission-BERC (Amendment) Bill, 2022 was approved in the cabinet meeting on Monday. The cabinet has also decided to import fuel oil, LPG and LNG through private portals.

According to the amended law, the government can increase or adjust the price of gas and electricity in special circumstances, said cabinet secretary Khandaker Anwarul Islam. However, BERC will also have the power to fix prices with hearing as before.

BERC fixes electricity and fuel prices after a period of 90 days under the existing law. The cabinet approved the proposed amendment so that the government can also make changes in the price in special circumstances.

The argument argued that it is necessary to adjust the price of electricity, gas and oil in line with the international market in order to ensure uninterrupted supply of electricity and energy given the present world circumstances. It has become necessary to amend the law to preserve the power of BERC as well as the government with an aim to ensure regular and speedy price adjustment while keeping the economy operational.

Although the decision was taken in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, the government did not clarify whether the powers would be revoked when the war ends. The whole matter is quite confusing.

Although regulations regarding price rates of natural gas transmission and distribution and electricity transmission and distribution (retail) have been issued, no regulations have been issued about petroleum product rates. In recent years, BERC fixed the prices of electricity and gas, but the government used to fix the prices of fuel oil and other petroleum products.

BERC was formed to ensure transparency and accountability of the government’s activities. They have been fixing gas and electricity prices through public hearings. The opinions of all the parties concerned, including the seller, consumer, are heard. It will no longer be necessary if the law is amended.

The proposal to amend the law hastily in the cabinet meeting raised many questions when the next session of the Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) is scheduled to be held in a month. Even if the increase in prices could not be prevented, the accountability of the concerned government institutions could be ensured through this public hearing. It no longer will work now. The government can increase the price arbitrarily.

The Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB) protested the amendment, saying it would disrupt good governance and justice. Energy expert M Shamsul Alam termed the amendment as damaging. We believe it is appropriate to pull out of the decision to amend the law.

It also raises question as to how much the decision to allow the private sector to import energy is in the interest of consumers and how much in the interest of businessmen. Government solely imported oil as of now that made it somewhat accountable to the consumer. If it is imported by the private sector, that accountability will no longer exist. The risk of adjusting price arbitrarily cannot be ruled out as well.