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Lawmakers up in arms over ‘fudged’ loadshedding figures

Updated September 14, 2017

ISLAMABAD: The opposition walked out of the National Assembly on Wednesday after the house was informed that areas in Sindh were facing eight to 10 hours of power outages, almost double the threshold of loadshedding announced by the ministry for both urban and rural areas.

The contentious issue of power outages overshadowed proceedings, both during Question Hour and otherwise, as newly-appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Energy Azhar Qayyum Nahra struggled to answer even government allies’ queries on the subject.

His lack of preparation even prom­pted an admonishment from Speaker Ayaz Sadiq during Question Hour when the lawmaker from Gujranwala was unable to respond to questions raised by lawmakers from the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Peoples Party.

“Thank your lucky stars,” the speaker told the novice secretary early in the session as he skipped over several questions related to Mr Nahra’s ministry due to the absence of the members who posed them.

New parliamentary secretary has hard time fielding queries

But this reprieve was short-lived and he was caught, like a deer in the headlights, when PTI’s Nafeesa Khattak questioned the authenticity of the loadshedding figures provided in response to her question.

“In actuality, urban areas face four hours of loadshedding, while rural areas experience five hours,” he responded, triggering uproar on both sides of the aisle.

“This is contempt! Why is the house being lied to?” exclaimed Nawab Yousuf Talpur, saying that his constituency of Umerkot regularly experienced 10-12 hours of outages.

His party colleagues Sheikh Rohail Asghar and Jam Kamal Khan tried to help the inexperienced secretary, coaching him on how to best respond to the opposition, who had seized on Mr Nahra’s words and were on their feet in indignation.

But the aspersion that stung the most came not from the opposition benches, but from the government-allied Pakistan Muslim League-Functional’s (PML-F) Ghous Bux Mahar. “He is lying on the floor of the house. On Eid day, we were promised no loadshedding, but all of Shikarpur was in darkness. For every two hours of power supply, we have to spend three hours without power,” he said.

But the parliamentary secretary was unrepentant. “Our government never complained about the problems we inherited. Isn’t it an achievement that 18-20 hours of loadshedding have been reduced to four to five hours? The numbers we have provided are the actual figures. If anyone has objections, they can sit with us and we will satisfy them.” Sensing the mood of the house, Deputy Speaker Murtaza Javed Abbasi directed Mr Nahra to separately meet and satisfy all lawmakers who had reservations about the figures he had provided.

But the opposition was not impres­sed, and an exasperated Sahibzada Tariqullah led the opposition benches in a token walkout, which was averted by some skilful diplomacy by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sheikh Aftab.

However, Mr Nahra’s luck did not improve. Immediately after the opposition returned, the speaker took up a calling attention notice submitted by PPP lawmakers on “long hours of unscheduled power outages in various parts of Sindh”, and called on the parliamentary secretary to make a statement.

“Areas where there are issues with recovery are facing eight to 10 hours of loadshedding. Although after factoring in line losses, they should be facing 18-20 hours without power, but the government is providing relief to such areas,” he contended.

Taking exception to this, PPP’s Ghulam Mustafa Shah and Shazia Marri questioned why power consumers in rural areas had to raise money to repair damaged transformers themselves. Mr Talpur, who is also a member of the erstwhile Standing Committee on Water and Power, blamed obsolete transmission lines and out-of-order equipment for the line losses that the government was penalising consumers for.

Unable to come up with a satisfactory response, the deputy speaker repeatedly directed the parliamentary secretary to arrange a meeting at the energy ministry, so that lawmakers’ observations could be addressed.

Although there were several government bills up for passage on Wednesday, the absence of a majority of treasury members deprived the ruling party of the opportunity to pass them.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2017