Talk show hosts lead protest at GPL
by Robert Bazil
May 5, 2000
A GROUP of disgruntled electricity consumers, led by television talk show hosts Mark Benschop and Reyaz Husein, broke up queues at the Guyana Power and Light (GPL) Main Street office in Georgetown, yesterday chanting "Who must go? GPL must go...No pay, out de place".
Some GPL customers who were inside the building quickly joined the protest while others went outside and stood on Main Street.
The protest started in the avenue outside GPL's headoffice, but intensified after a company official left instructions with the Police Special Constabulary that Benschop must not be allowed into a press conference scheduled for 10:00 hrs yesterday.
GPL's Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Mr Noel Hatch, who hosted the press conference, stated categorically that there was no such instruction from management.
Downstairs in the billing section, protestors stopped people from paying bills and demanded that they leave the building.
Benschop later told the Chronicle: "Demonstrators with their placards are saying `enough is enough'. They will no longer tolerate this nonsense that's going on from GPL...if you listen to all the talk shows from around town, everyday and night people are calling in talking about GPL, GPL."
Benschop referred to one of the protestors who had a bill for $1.8M when she usually receives a monthly charge of about $2,000.
"Every time we approach GPL they are not saying anything. They are mum on the issue, and Guyanese are fed up with this situation right now," he declared.
Benschop stated that based on all the calls coming in on C.N. Sharma's `Justice for All' programme, his (Benschop's) `Straight Up' programme and those of other hosts, they decided to send a message to GPL by way of protest. He added that hopefully, the Government will take note and make a statement as well.
And Reyaz Husein said that as a morning show host, he has been called by persons voicing their concerns about the disrespect GPL has been showing them as customers.
"Persons who normally pay $1,500 are now receiving bills for $60,000...I just spoke with a lady who had a bill for $1.5M when her average bill is about $900," he said.
The TV host said that when persons go to query these bills, they get no satisfaction. He added that the protest is something that Benschop and himself can come out and show GPL that they need to pull up their socks up.
Husein said that yesterday morning on his programme he spoke with somebody from Bartica who said she was coming to Georgetown by speedboat to join the protest.
Meanwhile, at the press conference, Hatch said that the system has been affected by two major problems since January 2000.
He explained that the computer hardware and associated printers failed in January. Consequently, the issuing of bills for January, February and March was significantly delayed. This, in turn, caused a build-up of bills for payment in late March, April and early May. As a result, there were queues at the company's Main Street and Middle Street offices.
Hatch told reporters that the problem was solved in March when repairs were done to the system. He added that GPL also purchased separate standby machines.
The other problem came about when the electronic receipting system failed in early April. This meant that handwritten receipts were required, significantly slowing down the process. GPL technicians have reportedly solved the problem of the failed system.
The new system was commissioned on Wednesday and is expected to be fully operational within the next three days.
In explaining GPL's disconnection policy, Hatch told journalists that any customer whose account is more than 21 days in arrears may be disconnected without notice.
Stating that there are 6,000 residential customers in Georgetown, Hatch said that the only customers disconnected are generally those that are seriously in arrears by amounts representing at least three months electricity usage.
"A large number of customers that are disconnected, are in fact up to one year or more in arrears. Additionally, many customers are disconnected and have illegally reconnected themselves," the official said.
However, he admitted that GPL may, in error have disconnected a small number of customers each month. But this is less than one per cent of the total number disconnected.
While the CEO apologised to these customers, he said this may arise due to wrong payment information or wrong address given. He said he was confident that the billing problems encountered are temporary, and that most of the problems will be solved within six months.
Hatch reported that GPL reads meters every two months in Georgetown and every month outside of Georgetown.
Non-access to meters is a considerable problem in many cases, leading to deviations from this reading standard, he said. He pointed out that estimates are based on the two most recent actual readings, with the daily average computed to determine the estimated consumption on the current bill.
Hatch indicated that international practice on frequency of meter reading varies from 12 times per year to once per year, with bills being issued monthly, every two months, or quarterly.
A frustrated woman in the picket line, Ms Clair Hayles, expressed the view there was no use for meters because GPL was estimating bills.
"I keep paying light bills all the time...I was there on two occasions and before I could reach home there was a bill in front of me and when I compared the numbers for the bills that I got, it was a completely different bill that I don't know anything about," she complained.
The customer told the Chronicle that she tried to match money she paid with the new bill, but they did not correspond.
One man said that he received an electricity bill in December for $8,000 and the next month his bill went to $70,000 based on estimation. But, according to him, GPL officials said they "did not want to hear anything".
Another woman said her light was cut off for over $90,000. She subsequently paid it up on the instructions of GPL, but she still got an estimated consumption bill for $60,000.