Plan to Set up Gas Utility Courts

The government has planned to amend a gas theft and recovery law to introduce gas utility courts and delegate federal government powers to prime minister for taking action against people involved in gas theft and delay in recovery of consumer bills.

Sources told The Express Tribune that the government would make amendments to the Gas (Theft Control and Recovery) Act 2016. Under the amendments, it will establish gas utility courts. The federal government may consult the relevant High Court chief justice, and through a notification in the official Gazette, establish as many utility courts in a district as it may deem necessary.

The government will appoint a judge to each such court from amongst the district and sessions judges in the district. District and sessions judges will include additional district and sessions judges as well. The Supreme Court, in its judgment in the Mustafa Impex case, interpreted the term “federal government” and declared that the federal government under the Constitution of Pakistan 1973 meant the prime minister and federal ministers.

This necessarily implies that any authority/ power conferred upon the federal government by an Act of parliament or delegated legislation must be exercised by the prime minister and federal ministers as a whole. In the wake of the court judgement, the Cabinet Division on November 26, 2018 conveyed that the cabinet, in its meeting held on September 3, 2017, decided that all ministries and divisions should, in consultation with the Law and Justice Division, make amendments to the respective Acts/ rules and replace the words “federal government” with “an appropriate authority(ies)”.

In Section 3 of the Gas (Theft Control and Recovery) Act 2016, the words “federal government” has been used. Therefore, in light of the federal cabinet decision, this statute needs to be amended by way of substituting “federal government” for “an appropriate authority”. Accordingly, the Law and Justice Division, in a letter on November 17, 2020, furnished a draft law titled “Gas (Theft Control and Recovery) (Amendment) Act 2020” to substitute “federal government” for the words “prime minister” so that powers of designating a presiding officer to try offences, presently vested in the federal government, could be exercised by the PM.

Gas theft has gone up in the country and to make up for the loss, the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (Ogra) – the industry regulator – has allowed public utilities to recover a major chunk of the cost from the honest consumers that are paying bills regularly. Of late, Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL) has somewhat been able to control theft. However, some areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which comes under SNGPL jurisdiction, are involved in theft of high gas volumes, because of lack of cooperation by the provincial government with the gas utility.

Similarly, the situation in areas covered by Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) is not satisfactory at all as the company has not been able to bring the stealing of gas under control. A few areas of Balochistan are involved in heavy theft, accounting for 40% of the overall theft, called Unaccounted for Gas (UFG), endured by the company.

At present, hundreds of cases are pending in courts. The proposed amendments to the law will help expedite legal proceedings against the people involved in gas theft or in cases of late recovery of consumer bills. The previous government had also made efforts in this regard, but amendments could not be approved. Now, the present government is pressing ahead with the plan to reduce losses of the state-run gas utilities.

On the one hand, the government is paying billions of rupees on import of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which has become quite expensive in the global market, while on the other hand locally produced gas is being wasted.

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