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Week’s electrifying moves notwithstanding, real crisis remains in focus

Updated Jun 28, 2013 03:08pm
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — Photo by AFP
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — Photo by AFP

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s two momentous decisions this week to prosecute the retired General Pervez Musharraf for treason and to reopen the money-laundering case against the soon to be retired President Asif Ali Zardari in Switzerland, provided material to television anchorpersons and political pundits to debate endlessly the fates of his two detractors. But the astute premier himself has remained focused on winning on the front most important to him – ending the crippling power crisis in the country.

After all, it was that promise that won him and his PML-N party an unprecedented third term – and fulfilling it is crucial for them, if not for survival at least for a smooth sailing in power for five years.

“We have made a comprehensive plan to grapple with the country’s problems, including the load-shedding,” Mian Nawaz Sharif declared in the National Assembly on June 5 after being elected the prime minister, promising to unveil the plan in an address to the nation soon.

In fact, he promised that instead of the 100 days traditionally given to a new government to prove itself, the nation would discover “within 30 days” that his government has set the country on the right course.

Even before the May 11 general election, reports came in thick and fast that if voted to power, the PML-N will be ready to implement its energy plan from day one. The party has now been in power for three weeks and the power crisis actually has grown worse. Urban populations that used to suffer power shutdowns for 6 to 8 hours a day now suffer twice that long. The situation is much worse for the rural population.

Last Monday, the prime minister made his first appearance in the National Assembly since assuming the office only to announce that his government was ready to put Gen Pervez Musharraf on trial for treason and nothing about addressing the people’s energy woes.

It emerged from background interaction with some PML-N leaders that “multiple reasons” were delaying his pledged first address to the nation.

But the main reason was that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wanted his speech to be “based on solid facts and figures” because the presence of an aggressive media, multiple and sharp opposition parties and above all a restive people demanded extra-care in preparing his talking points.Conscious of the misery that the PPP government had to suffer in tackling the energy crisis, Mian Nawaz Sharif wants a comprehensive, detailed plan of action spelling out his government’s short, mid and long term goals in terms of electricity production in the country.

“If I recall correctly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has chaired about two dozen meetings on resolving the crisis since winning the May 11 general elections. He had been listening to everyone with an idea which, at times, confuses him,” confided a PML-N office bearer on condition of anonymity. “There are too many advisors advising the PML-N government to put the power sector back on track.”

Musaddiq Malik, the minister of power in the caretaker set-up, is an obvious one. He has co-opted as special advisor in the ministry of water and power. Allegedly, he is using Sustainable Development Policy Institute’s researchers to impress Mian Nawaz Sharif with power point presentations.

Mr Malik is said to be for strict computer-based monitoring of electricity distribution, which according to some government people “looks good on paper, but not on ground”. His critics recall the fate of the telemetry system the Gen Musharraf regime installed to monitor fair distribution of river waters to the provinces. It failed miserably because the system depended on automated communication of measurements taken and other data collected at remote or inaccessible points to the monitoring equipment.

Then there is Mr Shaukat Tarin. The PML-N is drawing upon the financial wizardry the banker displayed as a member of Gen Musharraf’s administration. He has floated the idea of offering performance-based contracts to individuals and companies involved in the production and distribution of electricity in the country. According to him only through ruthless accountability the PML-N government will be able to improve governance in the power sector.

His contention is that once an individual, whether from the public or private sector, is given some charge in the ministry of water and power, he or she should be held responsible.

On the other side are Mian Nawaz Sharif’s very own loyal whizkids, finance minister Ishaq Dar and minister for power Khawaja Asif. Mr Dar is for cutting subsidies and increasing the tariffs in the power sector to cover the production cost.

Reportedly, many others attend the meetings the prime minister is constantly holding but are not mentioned in the official statements.

Still they are not enough consultation for the task. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has to have firm assurances and commitments from the provincial governments in his energy plan because of the substantial autonomy that the 18th Constitution Amendment granted them.

For example, if the central government wants to use maximum natural gas for electricity generation, it needs to bring PPP’s Sindh government on board. Sindh produces and owns 70 per cent of the total gas produced in the country. It consumes 30 percent of its production and the rest goes into the national stream. For diverting maximum amount of gas from the system to the thermal power plants, the federal government will need the consent of the Sindh government.

The PML-N government will need the consensus of all the federating units to implement its nationwide energy conservation plan too. It is contemplating to introduce a national level timetable for closing markets at sunset. It cannot do that without the cooperation of provincial governments. All such issues need to be settled before the prime minister formulates and announces a national energy policy.

A government source said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will have a final briefing before sharing his plan with the chief ministers at the Council of Common Interest meeting scheduled for June 29. A final draft of his much awaited address to the nation will then be prepared and delivered on a date yet to be decided.

By that time, the government would have paid Rs360 billion out of the Rs508 billion it owes to private sector power plants and fuel suppliers.

In his speech concluding the debate on the 2013-14 federal budget, the finance minister Ishaq Dar announced that the so-called circular debt would be paid off completely by August 12 using a combination of resources, including allocations in the budget, introducing saving schemes and floating of bonds.