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Load-shedding burden

April 21, 2017

WITH the return of load-shedding around the country, especially in the PML-N heartland of Punjab, memories of the last election have been stirred. Chronic power shortages, and frequent blackouts have played a pivotal role in the last two elections that were held in 2008 and 2013. And although the incumbent party in both instances was facing serious issues of credibility — as well as violent resistance to any public appearances in the case of the PPP in 2013 — the fact that the electorate went to the polls amidst crushing outages was a visible sign of the government’s failure to govern. It is, therefore, for good reason that the present government appears to be more nervous about load-shedding than any other issue, and the assurances offered by Khawaja Asif, the minister for water and power, in the National Assembly on Wednesday held a note of panic. The minister made a list of all the power projects that are scheduled to come online by the end of the year, and told the Assembly members that they should feel free to “grab me by the collar” if load-shedding continued to persist till then.

It is unfortunate though that the present peaks of load-shedding have little to do with power-generation capacity, and even less with the minister’s collar. Fact of the matter is that each time the power system has failed in such large measure, it has been due to financial constraints, which in turn grow out of an outmoded governance regime. It was this governance regime that the minister’s party had promised to fix by undertaking deep-seated reforms. The power sector is woven into so many other aspects of government operations that it is virtually impossible for one ministry or department to give an assurance that it will operate smoothly. Lack of liquidity, failure of tax refunds for private power producers, or the lack of ability to import fuel in time have all played a role in crippling the sector in the past. For this reason, a proposal was developed in the middle of the PPP government’s tenure to perhaps merge the petroleum ministry with the water and power ministry, to perhaps create one large ministry of energy, but that proposal never went beyond the discussion stage.

There was another proposal to allow market forces to play a greater role in power pricing, which could have helped mitigate the constant liquidity shortage that the sector suffers from, thereby easing the accumulation of circular debt and smoothening out arrangements for fuel supply. That proposal also went nowhere. The only proposal that achieved something under the present government was the Chinese one — of massive new investments in the power sector using Chinese project financing. And it is these investments alone that the minister today points to when asked about load-shedding. These megawatts are what the government has pegged its future on, and if load-shedding is to rear its head when the campaign rallies get under way, and the electorate gears up to vote, the minister might yet rue his offer to be grabbed by the collar.

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2017