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Villagers Protest Pension Cuts For Water Debts

Armenia -- A drinking water reservoir.
Armenia -- A drinking water reservoir.
Hundreds of rural residents in Armenia are feeling hard done by as they must let a local water utility have a third of their meager monthly incomes over alleged debts following relevant court orders.

Armenian Water and Sewerage, a company managing most of the country’s water supply and distribution networks, has been successfully filing civil lawsuits against customers in some rural areas, with courts ordering them to pay sizable amounts of money for water debts . Most villagers describe these decisions as groundless.

The Bailiff’s Office says at present there are court rulings and enforcement orders on as many as 285 indebted customers allegedly owing a total of 96 million drams (nearly $250,000) to the company. However, the data appears to be in conflict with figures suggested by some involved in the dispute.

Dashtavan, a village in Armenia’s southern Ararat province, claims to have at least 570 households that have found themselves in dire straits after running into debts and losing controversial litigations. The community’s total debt is estimated at 39 million drams (more than $100,000). The local governor’s advisor says there are people in the same situation in at least two dozen other villages. A majority of the population in Saralanj, a village in the central province of Kotayk, are also at the receiving end of the controversial legal matter.

Many household owners in Armenia’s increasingly ageing rural communities are elderly people who live off a monthly state pension of less than $100. They say being deprived of up to 30 percent of that paltry income is a serious blow to their living condition. Court orders will remain effective until they pay their debts that range from 100,000 to 500,000 drams ($260 to $1,300) – a sizable amount of money according to local standards. Following court orders debtors cannot sell their land and property until they clear their arrears.

“How can villagers pay such a whole lot of money if their kids cannot afford to buy pastry during a lunch break at school?” complained one elderly resident in Dashtavan.

The locals say neither the company nor the judicial authorities considered the heavy social situation of many of them in applying the sanctions.

The dispute in Dashtavan and other areas stems from a controversial application of regulations according to which the households that do not have water meters pay a fixed charge based on the diameter of their water-supply pipe on the assumption that they receive water according to a certain schedule agreed between the supplying company and the local administration.

Samvel Hambardzumian, head of the Armenian Water And Sewerage branch in Masis, says no one has been listed as a debtor unfairly. “Those who installed water meters had seen their debts accumulated before 2004 re-structured. And those who didn’t, under a corresponding government decision, had the diameter of their pipes measured,” he explained in an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am).

The company official said those residents who have receipts of payments and claim they have no debts in fact paid only a smaller part of their actual water bills, with the bulk of the due payment remaining as a debt that has accumulated over years.

The Dashtavan village mayor, Seryozha Khachatrian, who also claims to have been obliged to pay debts arbitrarily, supports the claims of his fellow villagers. “The general complaint of the people is, no doubt, legitimate. People have been paying their bills,” Khachatrian said, adding that he, too, had to pay more than 85,000 drams (or about $220) to clear the arrears that the utility company said he owed for consumed water.

The local leader, however, stopped short of calling on his fellow villagers to follow suit. “I paid it because I could afford to do that, but others cannot,” he explained.

Local residents say a similar dispute with Armenian Water And Sewerage last year was temporarily put to rest after the local governor’s office intervened. They say for a while the company stopped filing court claims or considerably reduced their number before starting to do it en masse all over again.

Garik Vartanian, an advisor to the Ararat governor, visited the village earlier this week to inquire about the current situation. “This isn’t a problem that exists only in this village, it is a problem common for 18-19 villages [in the Ararat province],” Vartanian said.

Meanwhile, a civil law expert, Karen Mezhlumian, insisted that in taking legal action against customers the water-supply company has disregarded the fact that citizens have the defense of prescription. “Had the citizens raised objections to the legal actions against them based on prescription, the claims would have been dropped. But the failure to do so on their part resulted in hundreds of such claims being upheld by courts simply because they did not appear in courtrooms [to raise their objections,]” he said.

Still, an Armenian Water And Sewerage executive, Maya Galustian does not consider the current cases to be a clear matter of prescription. “If from 2004 a customer received a service and made payments, fully or partially, failing to pay one month, but paying for the next month, how do we know when to start considering it to be a case of prescription?” she queried.

The Armenian Ombudsman’s Office has also responded to the lingering dispute by launching an inquiry into grounds on which deductions have been made from indebted customers’ pensions.

Very often people in the rural communities disputing the water utility company’s actions also complain that they do not receive water in the amount that the company charges them for. For the past several months most of the retired people in Saralanj have been deprived of a third of their monthly state pensions on account of their unpaid water utility bills. Villagers say some 60-70 percent of the community that officially has 100 households has problems with water debts.

Saralanj residents claim they receive water for only a quarter of an hour a day, while according to the company schedule they are supposed to receive water for at least two hours a day. Residents argue it is unfair to charge them for the amount of water they never get.

Saralanj village mayor Gegham Zilifian backs the claims, insisting that the village administration has repeatedly notified the company about that fact.

But company officials say their periodical monitoring activities have revealed no breach of the water supply schedule. “I don’t believe that they [villagers] receive water for only 15 minutes a day,” said the commercial director of Armenian Water And Sewerage, Vahagn Manandian, adding that observations regularly conducted by the company staff have revealed no deviations from the agreed schedule.

On average a household in the village has to pay 9,500 drams (about $25) a month on the assumption that it consumes 60 cubic meters of water. Manandian says most villagers have for a long time paid only a fraction of what they were supposed to pay.

Local residents, meanwhile, also complain about the quality of the water that they have to use. “The pipes are very old and rusty, but we have to drink this water,” complains one middle-aged Saralanj resident. “We have a stomach ache from this water,” adds another villager.

Like in Dashtavan, the land and property of Saralanj debtors are seized under relevant court orders pending the clearance of the water arrears. Many find it a harsh reality that prevents them from selling their property and moving out of the place.

“I cannot sell either my house or my land or take out a loan because they say my property is under an order of seizure,” said Garegin Hayrapetian. The elderly villager claimed that a company official asked a kickback from him promising to cancel most of his debt.

Armenian Water And Sewerage’s Manandian did not exclude corruption risks in the system, but denied any knowledge of an unscrupulous inspector offering deals to customers. To avoid such situations, the official suggested villagers make payments only at banks and ask for receipts.