This ‘free market’ free-for-all

UNTIL Saturday the government seemed to be much too preoccupied with political gamesmanship to pay heed to issues that concern the public the most. Or maybe it was simply a case of wheat hoarders and smugglers wielding so much clout in official circles that punitive action against them is next to impossible. In any case, the country today is faced with a curious situation where wheat prices are surging despite a bumper crop that exceeded domestic demand by an estimated 1.5 million tonnes. Flour prices have also risen as a result and are likely to increase further as demand picks up during Ramazan. The root causes of these price hikes are clear to all, including the government. The adviser to the finance ministry admits that more than two million tonnes of wheat is being hoarded across the country, while another senior official estimates that some 1.5 million tonnes have been smuggled out of Pakistan in the last 45 days. Lists of hoarders identified by the centre have been dispatched to the provinces but action against the culprits is still awaited, possibly because of their alleged connections to the party in power in Sindh and Punjab. Smugglers, taking advantage of substantially higher wheat prices in regional markets, are meanwhile doing a roaring trade through the Wagah, Khokhrapar and Balochistan-Taftan crossings.

The government’s decision, taken belatedly, to import one million tonnes of wheat to create a buffer stock comes against this backdrop. Hopefully this will ease the dire situation in the local market that could have forced millers to import nearly a million tonnes of wheat at a price higher than the price they received when the government allowed wheat to be exported only a few months ago.

The government’s promises of a crackdown on hoarders should deceive no one. Equally hollow are official claims that Pakistan’s is a free-market economy where prices are determined solely by demand and supply. When supply is controlled by profiteers and monopolists, its equation with price is an artificial creation. Cartels and mafias with strong political connections dominate and manipulate the market where engineered shortages and price hikes are routine. Several essential commodities are controlled by a small group that can kill off any competitor who requires a level playing field in order to do business. A strong regulatory authority is the need of the hour, and giving the toothless Monopoly Control Authority some real bite could be a step in the right direction. But besides much-needed checks and balances, what is essential is a government that is sincere in its commitment to honest business practices. It must first set its own house in order, for that is where the rot begins. Otherwise, this free-for-all in the name of a free market will never end.

Curse of spurious drugs

NOTHING could be more reprehensible than earning profits at the cost of human lives. But this is nothing uncommon in Pakistan and the report that the country has become a lucrative market for spurious drugs is not surprising. Not only are expired medicines often found in the market but the quality, potency and genuineness of drugs in general also remain questionable. In many cases, the medicines used to treat patients turn out to be ineffective or even poisonous and aggravate the ailment rather than curing it. That is one aspect of the pharmaceutical sector. The other is the effectiveness of the government’s price control mechanism and its regulation and registration process of new medicines which have been long debated. In the circumstances, it comes hardly as a surprise that up to 20 per cent of the drug market in the country comprises counterfeit life-savings drugs and injections. The problem turns worse when a large number of imitation drugs resembling the original products are sold in the local market. True, many of these problems emanate from general ignorance and poor awareness. But lack or inadequate enforcement of laws that exist to protect the health and lives of citizens is also a major factor accounting for this evil. Hence the government cannot be absolved of its responsibility in the matter. This trade could not have flourished if the drug inspectors and officials at the drug laboratories had been more vigilant and conscientious in the performance of their duty. They are empowered under the Drug Control Act, 1976, to check the malpractices that encourage the trade in substandard medicines. The ministry of health in particular and the government in general are equally responsible for this state of affairs, their claims of improving social indicators notwithstanding.

It is the primary responsibility of the Drug Regulatory Authority to ensure the regulation of the drug market and the implementation of laws. The Drug Control Organisation which oversees the drug-testing laboratories is another institution which should be looking into this matter. But the entire chain seems to be suffering serious limitations of manpower, resources and testing facilities to monitor the medicine market. Over and above this is also the general handicap of corruption that mars the working of the entire system. This makes a strong case for strengthening of the drug control organisation with built-in monitoring and surveillance facilities and the power to weed out corruption.

Whose money is it, Sir?

IT may sound like an oxymoron but cheap publicity often comes at a great cost. Take, for instance, the millions being spent from the public exchequer by the Punjab chief minister on what is pure self-aggrandisement in the form of advertisements that do not leave TV screens during prime time. The state of public health, education and social welfare sectors in the province is nowhere near the claims being made by the media campaigns put out by the provincial government. Making out the chief minister, Parvaiz Elahi, as the undisputed hero and the messiah of the poor, these ads are flabbergasting to say the least. Is there no one to ask the Punjab government as to why the measly Rs500 per month grant going out to destitute families under a programme having a total outlay of a few hundred thousand rupees is being trumpeted on TV screens on prime time, and arguably at a cost of several million rupees? Shouldn’t that money too have gone into the destitute fund? Indeed, if there were a transparent one in place for real. The beggar families appearing on TV with testimonials praising the chief minister to the hilt make an ungainly spectacle and a mockery of the social sector because the truth is all too evident outside the make-believe realm of advertisements.

President Musharraf in his candid weekly shows on TV has on occasion said that Pakistan is no banana republic. Well, the country’s most populous province under the Chaudhrys’ rule is not very far from claiming that coveted title. It may be well earned, but comes with public money. Where, one wonders, is the Election Commission? It is clear that the tone and tenor of the adverts is nothing short of Mr Elahi’s election campaign. Is he entitled to use public money to seek his re-election? That the lack of accountability should be so in-your-face is alarming.

The missing link in the energy equation

By Dr M. Asif

IN THE present age, the provision of sufficient and affordable energy has become a basic human need. Pakistan is facing one of the worst energy crisis of its history. The gap between demand and supply was growing over the last few years, and this summer it crossed the 2,500MW mark.

With overwhelming energy challenges facing Pakistan, apart from bridging the gap between demand and supply, it has become essential for the country to adopt a meaningful and coherent energy conservation policy to use the available lot of energy more productively.

In the modern world, energy conservation, also referred to as energy conservation and management, is considered crucial to promoting energy sustainability. Energy conservation is the process of decreasing the quantity of energy used while achieving a similar output to deliver financial gain.

Energy conservation also leads to environmental benefits, human comfort and personal and national security. Individuals and organisations that are direct consumers of energy may want to conserve energy in order to reduce costs and promote economic and environmental sustainability. Industrial and commercial users may want to increase efficiency and thus maximise profits.

On a larger scale, energy conservation is being considered as an integral part of national energy policy. In brief, energy conservation reduces energy consumption and energy demand per capita, and thus offsets the growth in energy supply needed to keep up with population increase. This reduces the rise in energy costs, and can reduce the need for new power plants and energy imports.

The reduced energy demand can provide more flexibility in choosing the most preferred methods of energy production. By reducing emissions, energy conservation is an important part of lessening global warming. Energy conservation facilitates the replacement of conventional energy resources with renewable ones.

Energy conservation is often the most economical solution to energy shortages. As a matter of fact, energy conservation measures can be up to four times more economical than producing electricity from conventional systems.

Energy conservation practices find their effectiveness in all sectors — domestic, industrial, transport and commercial. The industrial sector represents production and the processing of goods, including manufacturing, construction, farming, water management and mining.

Energy costs account for a major proportion of the total operational cost for a wide range of industries. In the wake of increasing energy prices, it has become critical for industries to cut down their energy costs in order to succeed in highly competitive local and international markets.

In Pakistan, the industrial sector in general incorporates considerable energy losses thus lowering the level of overall operational productivity. For example, plants and equipment lack proper calibration and maintenance, and production and assembly lines run low on productivity. The industrialist is not aware of the financial losses being incurred as a result of these inefficient practices.

Even the most modern of industries in Pakistan does not have an internal energy auditing and monitoring policy in place which is the key to energy conservation and management. The irony is that the human resource at any level — top to lower management, engineers and technical staff, laymen and other support staff — has neither the vision nor the relevant qualification to realise the essence of energy conservation.

The domestic sector accounts for about 44 per cent of the total energy consumption in Pakistan. It is estimated that 30-40 per cent of the total energy load in the domestic sector goes into space conditioning i.e. cooling in summer and heating in winter.

Other major energy-consuming activities include cooking, heating water and lighting. Manufacturers of home appliances have absolutely no clue about making their products energy-efficient. Consumers are not aware of the fortune home appliances are costing them in terms of running costs which consists primarily of consumed energy cost.

Commercial buildings can greatly increase energy efficiency by implementing thoughtful designs. The commercial sector that normally consists of retail stores, offices, restaurants, schools and other workplaces has energy applications similar to the ones seen in the domestic sector. Space conditioning is again the single biggest consumption area, followed by lighting. Both of these are generally the most wasteful components of commercial energy use.

No rocket science is required to carry out energy conservation. It is simple and viable. It can be accomplished in a number of ways and at various degrees depending upon the nature and size of its application. In its simplest form, it starts absolutely free of cost, for example, switching the lights off when not required and a sensible setting of the thermostat.

At the second level, it could be a low-cost practice, for example, usage of fluorescent lights to cut down the lighting load or shading the south-facing windows and walls in order to reduce the cooling load. At the third level, it could require some investment, for example, incorporation of insulation to control heating and cooling losses, and proper calibration and maintenance of equipment to make them run at an optimal level.

The last and relatively more expensive level could be a major overhauling of the existing system/equipment or even replacement of aging and ill-productive equipment with new and more efficient gear. Examples in this regard include the implementation of a regular maintenance plan for equipment, replacement of single-glazed windows with multi-glazed windows, replacement of conventional boilers with heat recovery ones, and incorporation of heat exchangers to extract energy from the waste heat.

It is important to bear in mind that whatever energy conservation measures are adopted, they should pay themselves back several times over their lifetime.

It has been seen in most developed countries that despite the modern and efficient infrastructure in place, there is still considerable margin for improvement through the implementation of energy conservation and management measures — reports and case studies indicate that in the domestic, industrial and commercial sectors, energy conservation practices can easily save more than 15 per cent of the total energy being consumed.

This being the case with developed states, countries like Pakistan have much greater scope for energy conservation practices. Considering the current electricity and gas prices in the country, energy conservation can definitely save a few hundred rupees over a year even for the smallest domestic consumer connected to the grid.

For large-scale industries employing extensive use of energy, the resulting saving could be in the millions. Subsequent financial relief can thus be reflected in lower operation/production costs, making products and services more competitive in the market.

In conclusion, energy conservation is in the interest of individuals as it results in financial gain. It is also a service to the nation as energy conservation at the macro level can reduce the demand load on the national grid. The less energy we consume the cleaner will be our environment.

The writer is lecturer in renewable energy, Glasgow Caledonian University, UK

Defeat is Musharraf’s…

The Statesman

THE commando-turned-president has for the moment silenced his major challenger. And yet palpable was the panic of the establishment on Monday afternoon, the defeat near-total and irreversible. The resonant message of the second exile of Nawaz Sharif must be the profound contempt, even defiance, with which the government views its highest judiciary. …with malice aforethought was he offered a choice between re-arrest and exile. The world may never know whether he opted for the latter. Arguably, the option was exercised by Musharraf.

If the robust expression of support as beamed by TV — before he took off again — is any indication, a Sharif behind bars would inevitably have produced a groundswell of support. The fact that the helicopter carrying him to an undisclosed destination changed course to put him on the flight to Jeddah points to the panic of a self-elevated president now cut to size by the jihadi as much as the judiciary. Clearly, the general has planned his strategy with his back to the wall…

Few dispensations in Pakistan have faced so daunting a crisis as did the present on Monday, an indication of the spurious democracy that may be on offer post-elections. — (Sept 12)

Pension for senior citizens

The Kashmir Times

THE union government has announced old age pension for senior citizens falling in the “below the poverty line” (BPL) category. Such welfare measures sound good but it needs to be seen how these steps, often taken in pure haste and simply motivated by vote bank politics, would fare at the ground level.

The centre had mooted a plan of Rs400 as old age pension for BPL citizens, which is indeed a paltry sum… But the basic flaw is not just the meagre sum of money being promised… There is an inherent flaw in the manner that the beneficiaries are identified under the BPL category. The system is not quite based on a scientific assessment of how much each individual or his/her family is deprived of. It is simply based on the earnings of an individual.

The scheme to benefit people below the poverty line by offering them free rations or pensions for the senior citizens among them is a much needed mechanism in this country of stark disparities. But there is a need to not only offer a more dignified life to the poor, there is also a need to devise a more fool-proof mechanism of identifying the genuinely poor.

(Sept 15)

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007



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