Most of the urban local bodies (ULBs) in India lack an automated billing mechanism to levy and collect user charges for water supply and sewerage services. Inefficient billing and collection practices not only lead to poor recovery of operations and maintenance costs, but also increases the dependence on government and multilateral funding.
Even in bigger cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai, ULBs are facing the issue of inadequate cost recovery. Lower revenue collection puts the creditworthiness of municipal agencies at risk, thus affecting their bankability and ability to tap into financial markets. However, the situation is slowly changing with several ULBs adopting advanced automated mechanisms to levy and collect user charges. A case in point is the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), which deployed a revenue management system (RMS) in 2012 to improve its revenue collection. The aim was to replace the manual billing process with advanced digitalised metering, billing and collection processes.
Prior to this, the utility’s revenue collection was highly inefficient due to issues such as inconsistent billing cycles, limited collection centres, incomplete records of properties and customers, and an obsolete grievance redressal system. Other challenges faced by the civic agency included complex and time-consuming processes, and the lack of an up-to-date data collection system.
Over the past five to six years, the RMS has improved DJB’s revenue collection, service delivery and decision-making; increased the number of billed connections; and reduced tax evasion.
Salient features of DJB’s RMS
An RMS is a multilevel management system, that automates different functions for the utility. The system comprises an intranet portal, mobile applications (separate for meter readers and customers) and an internet portal. It has been developed with technical assistance from Tata Consultancy Services. A customer care and billing software has been developed by the Oracle Customer Care and Billing 2.3 (CC&B) platform at the National Data Centre, Shastri Park, for performing functions like metering, billing, collection and grievance redressal. At the centre, information related to outstanding bills, payment receipts and customer complaints is collated. Further, a standardised online database of customers (containing their addresses, the number of metering connections, etc.) is prepared by mapping of customers using the existing geographic information system (GIS) maps. The collated information can be accessed by the DJB management at their headquarters as well as at 40 zonal offices through the portal. Other than this, a data recovery site has been established in Hyderabad to ensure data security.
Through this software, DJB manages the revenue collection process efficiently, as the tasks of viewing and printing of bills, generating receipts, and tracking grievances of customers are performed through a single dashboard. The platform also provides other value-added services like SMS alerts, payment receipts and automated notices for late payments and defaulters. Other software programs that are used in the system include Oracle weblogic server, Oracle database and Oracle business intelligence enterprise edition, and mobile devices based on Android and BusyBox. DJB has deployed mobile tablets to capture the digital images of meters through GIS. For customers, the portal enables filling applications for new water or sewerage connections, raising online requests for disconnection and mutation, viewing bill details, making bill payments, and raising grievances and tracking their status.
To make bill payments, facilities like net banking and payment through debit/credit cards are available. For this, DJB has partnered with third parties such as corporations (118 branches) and banks such as Kotak Mahindra Bank, IDBI (32 branches) and Allahabad Bank (69 branches). Facilities of payment gateways or e-kiosk (40) and mobile wallet applications have also been introduced.
Currently, the portal is being upgraded from the CC&B 2.3 version to the CC&B 2.5 version for additional facilities. The upgradation, being carried out by Wipro, is expected to be completed by March 2023. As part of this, the existing universal content measuring and data entry portal, hardware and servers will be upgraded. The utility is planning to commence spot collections on premises through hand-held devices.
The experience so far
Improved billing accuracy, collection efficiency and revenues: Post the adoption of RMS, water meters are read through digital machines as opposed to manual reading. There are about 900 meter readers who provide door-to-door billing facilities with the help of hand-held machines. The customers can now pay their water bills through an online portal, payment kiosks and mobile wallets. The number of billing cycles has also increased from two to six per year. All functions including new connections, disconnections and mutations have been facilitated online, thereby completely eliminating manual processes. Further, the board has set up an online grievance redressal system and dedicated call centres for improving the customer experience.
The RMS has helped DJB improve its billing accuracy. Earlier, only 40 per cent of the customers were billed on the basis of actual consumption while the rest were billed on an ad hoc basis. Today, about 90 per cent of the customers are billed on their actual consumption and the remaining 10 per cent are charged the average of their actual consumption. The civic agency’s customer base has also expanded from 2.25 million to more than 2.6 million customers post the deployment of the RMS. DJB has set up a dedicated data centre for collecting real-time data on consumption, billing, payment, etc. The RMS has led to an increase in the number of billing cycles and active connections, and improved revenue generation. During the first billing cycle of 2016-17, the active connection numbers (KNOs) stood at 2.05 million. During the year, 1,786,059 bills were generated, registering a billing percentage of 87.1 per cent. In 2017-18, the active number of KNOs stood at 2.24 million during the sixth round of the billing cycle and the total quantity billed stood at 421 million gallons per day (mgd). During April-December 2018-19, the active number of KNOs increased to 2.31 million while the quantity billed stood at 421 mgd.
During the period from 2012-13 to 2017-18, DJB’s revenue collection increased from Rs 10.24 billion to Rs 16.9 billion, registering a compound annual growth rate of 10.6 per cent. The total revenue collection stood at Rs 12.53 billion for the April-December period of 2018-19.
Benefits of RMS to customers and utilities
Some of the advantages of the RMS for customers are the availability of online services for on-the-spot and regular billing, grievance redressal and bill payment. Customers can get real-time information on pending bills, which can be paid anytime irrespective of the time and location. This has improved collection efficiency. The availability of flexible modes of payment has also reduced the chances of default as customers no longer need to visit a branch for this purpose. Further, the system generates reports on customer density (with high and low density areas highlighted in dark and light colours respectively) and the number of house connections for understanding customer consumption patterns and expected demand. This helps DJB in formulating plans and projects for water supply and sewerage infrastructure. Besides, hand-held devices have been deployed to ensure accuracy in capturing meter readings. This helps in reducing the gap between actual water supply and the volume billed. The compilation of data at a central point also eliminates the need for reconciliation of data recorded at zonal offices and at headquarters. Further, the portal facilitates decentralised decision-making by making information and knowledge readily available and accessible at zonal levels.
Other key RMS benefits for DJB include improved decision-making, efficient revenue management, better service delivery, higher revenue collection, reduced tax evasions, and increased number of customers.
The digitalisation of various municipal functions through the adoption of the RMS has been one of the key revenue enhancement strategies adopted by DJB. It has helped not only the utility but also customers by offering them a seamless online experience. Nevertheless, DJB faced several issues and challenges in RMS implementation. These include data migration from a large legacy system to RMS, data cleansing, staff training, and unavailability of certain Oracle modules. The successful implementation of the system has helped DJB in strengthening municipal finances and facilitating effective delivery of services. To further enhance revenue collection, RMS 2.0 is being developed. However, the success of these initiatives will depend on the capacity and financial health of utilities and local bodies, quality of manpower, rational tariff structures, and customer awareness and adaptability to new technologies.