Until recently he was a national hero. Today he stands accused of being ‘intellectually dishonest’ and a ‘fraud’.
The rise and fall of Dr. Samar Mubarakmand, the man who rose to prominence for his involvement with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, reveals a story of technological hyperboles and lack of transparency while millions of dollars were invested in a project whose feasibility reports have not been made public. All what is known about the project are the claims by Dr. Mubarakmand about the coal gasification project based on Thar coal to generate the much needed electricity in Pakistan.
The huge gap between the demand and supply of electricity in Pakistan has exposed the State’s failure in delivering a product to the market where sufficient willingness to pay exists. While the masses complain of high utility rates, they are in fact more peeved at the fact that despite their willingness to pay higher utility rates, the State is unable to supply electricity. The result is power outages lasting six to 18 hours a day affecting residential, commercial, and industrial sectors.
Because of the energy crisis, commerce and manufacturing in Pakistan have collapsed to a near default state. The export sector can no longer deliver on contracts because erratic power supply makes it impossible to adhere to production schedules. Ordinary citizens are subjected to a mass hysteria in an environment where bathing, cooking, or reading can no longer be planned. Even the comics have resorted to parodies wondering why there is no electricity in Pakistan (Baboo Rana’s Saademulkichbijliji!)
Given that the energy crisis has challenged Pakistan over the past several decades, one would have hoped to see a quicker and robust response to energy shortfall using Pakistan’s natural resources. However, the inability to govern and deliver has plagued several military and civilian governments in Pakistan. Despite the fact that Thar coal reserves were discovered in 1991, more than 20 years hence not much electricity has been generated from the estimated 175-billion tonnes of coal reserves.
The purpose of this commentary is not to scapegoat Dr. Mubarakmand. The failure of the State to govern and provide may not be attributed to an individual functionary. The purpose, however, is to highlight the procedural shortcomings of a renowned and respected technologist in creating a transparent governance structure around his pet project, and the complacency of Pakistan’s Planning Commission when it failed to identify the most feasible alternatives and paths to development and prosperity.
Instead of detailed project feasibility reports about the Thar coal gasification prospects what one sees are claims, insults, and accusations being traded on print and electronic media. Dr. Mubarakmand, who is a member of the Planning Commission for science and technology, has stuck to his claim that he can generate electricity from Thar coal, which he would make available at 4 rupees per unit (approximately 4 Cents US per kWh). He further claims that Thar coal has the capacity to generate 50,000 MW (at times he has claimed 80,000 MW) and 100 million barrels of oil (diesel) for the next 500 years. He believes Thar coal reserves are valued at US$25 trillion. Shahid Sattar, who is also a member of the Planning Commission for energy, has serious reservations about Dr. Mubarakmand’s claims for generating power from coal gasification. A recent audit by the Planning Commission found Dr. Mubarakmand’s project infeasible.
The political leadership has also aligned against Dr. Mubarakmand. A Senate committee comprising of senators from the Awami National Party and the ruling PPP declared Dr. Mubarakmand’s project a fraud. Dr. Qadeer Khan, another former member of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, has accused Dr. Mubarakmand of intellectual dishonesty. The criticism by politicians and others of Dr. Mubarakmand’s plan has resulted in shaving his originally planned 100 MW prototype plant (for which he sought another 9.9 billion rupees (US$105 million) in January 2012) to a 10 MW plant. He told The News in January 2012 that the project was expected to cost $250 million.
Raked over the coals for black diamonds
It was around early 2010 that Dr. Mubarakmand announced plans to use Thar coal for power generation. His plans entailed using a process called gasification to turn coal into gas which is used to generate electricity by either directly being fed to move turbines or is used to produce steam, which in turn moves turbines. He has always claimed of coming up with indigenous technology for gasification and capturing and storing carbon. He has even hinted at building turbines and other power generating equipment in Pakistan to save foreign exchange. However, when the critics started raising doubts about the feasibility of his plans, the learned scientist did not offer any technical evidence. His only explanation was that he had ordered the wells to be closed and hence no evidence of high BTU gas was available to the inspection teams!
If he were a politician, I would not expect him to offer proofs for his claims. But he is Pakistan’s top scientist, owing his stature at the Planning Commission. One expects to see a detailed feasibility study in support of his claims. He has been repeating ad nauseam the capacity to generate 50,000 MW of electricity which he would sell at 4 rupees per kWh (one unit). But where is the proof that this is really possible? And more importantly, can it all be done in a reasonable time? What about the detractors’ claim that by the time Dr. Mubarakmand’s experimental designs move from prototypes to scale implementation, many a governments would have been voted out by the electorate.