With the cost of supplying each electricity bill, at Rs.57, sometimes exceeding the invoice amount, the Himachal Pradesh power utility has proposed billing reforms.

The Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board (HPSEB) is planning to introduce a spot billing system to bring down costs from Rs.57 per bill to Rs.20, which will also give consumers an error free invoice, said an official.

The HPSEB, overstaffed with more than 30,000 employees, also has the highest per employee cost in the country.

"At present the HPSEB is supplying 900 million units to 1.36 million domestic consumers at a cost of Rs.500 million ($11.4 million), which is a quarter more than the revenue collected every two months," said an HPSEB official.

The HPSEB provides electricity to some 80,000 impoverished families whose bills are often less than the cost of the billing.

"The cost of supplying each bill to the consumer in the hill state is a whopping Rs.57," he said.

The state regulatory authority has in the past directed the HPSEB to bring down the staff cost by installing bill payment machines and prepaid meters.

The HPSEB has already successfully tested the spot billing machines, which generate and print the electricity bills on the spot.

The machines weighing 700 grams also save a lot of paper work and time as they directly transfer the data to computers installed in various billing centres.

"The most significant aspect of the new system is that the HPSEB linesman has no option but to visit each and every meter in the state and take the actual meter reading on the spot with the help of the new machine, virtually ruling out disputes with consumers," said the official.

"The machine records the date and time of each meter reading, thus helping to monitor the daily movement of the meter readers," he said.

The HPSEB is also proposing staggered billing for consumers living in remote, tribal and hard areas in the hill state. They will be issued electricity bills once every four months instead of the current billing cycle of two months.

But for industrial and other bulk supply consumers the billing system will be monthly if the proposals are implemented. Urban areas and municipal corporations will have a bimonthly billing cycle.

Himachal Pradesh, with a population of over six million, has some 90 percent people living in villages. The hill state is surplus in electricity and has already achieved complete electrification.

Faced with surplus staff, the fund-starved state-run company has banned recruitment for several years.