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Hours of darkness

Updated June 07, 2018


NAWAZ Sharif campaigned on the promise to end load-shedding, and the PML-N’s message throughout their campaign is going to rest heavily on their claim to have delivered on this. The idea all along was to campaign on load-shedding, which had hit unprecedented levels in March 2013, then gun forward with Chinese assistance after the victory at the polls to instal as much power-generation capacity as was possible. Even before he had taken oath as prime minister, he held a meeting with Prime Minister Li Keqiang of China on May 23 (he took oath on June 5).

After the meeting, a statement was released saying both countries were preparing “to strengthen their strategic partnership, expand their economic ties and promote people-to-people contacts.” In addition, it was announced that the Chinese prime minister had invited the then prime minister-to-be of Pakistan to visit China.

That visit took place less than a month after Nawaz took oath. That was the first time we heard of an ‘economic corridor’ between both countries, with some sort of ‘long-term plan’ that was in the works. In November 2014, the first MoU was signed in China between Nawaz Sharif and Xi Jinping during the second state visit to Beijing, outlining all the power projects in which China would be investing. This was a parallel process to the one that had already been initiated a year earlier, and was called the “early harvest projects”. The list contained a string of coal, LNG, solar and hydel power projects in which China was going to invest, “following market principles”, sufficient to bridge Pakistan’s power deficit.

The plan from here was to gun ahead with the early harvest projects, get them up and running before the next elections, then return to the electorate and say ‘did I not promise to eliminate load-shedding? See, I have done so. Now give me your vote one more time, and I will eliminate poverty, hunger, unemployment’, and so on.

One small thing going wrong in one place can send consequences cascading through the entire power system.

This is why the early harvest projects have been pushed through with such tremendous speed. Taken together, they had added around 10,000MW of generation capacity to the system, the single largest spurt of power-generation capacity enhancement the country ever saw. All seemed to be going according to plan. Two LNG terminals were commissioned in Karachi, to provide fuel for the three LNG-fired power plants coming up in Punjab. Not only two megawatts, but the cost of generation had to be reduced.

But Panama threw a spanner in this plan. It forced Nawaz to push the timeline up. Listen to the speeches made on GT Road, and you will realise those were actually meant to be his campaign speeches right about now. ‘Did I not promise I will eliminate load-shedding? Are we not getting that done?’ and so on. The line had to be rolled out prematurely, but from that point onward the party has remained on this track. It was repeated again by former finance minister Miftah Ismail during the budget speech. “The biggest promise we made during the last election to the nation was to eliminate electricity load-shedding which stands fulfilled today.”

Before leaving, they ensured that the system should keep running. Fuel supplies have been arranged, liquidity issues have been addressed with a Rs100 billion payment to various power-sector stakeholders so the circular debt does not end up choking the system at its crucial hour. The three critically important LNG projects have been fast-tracked through their technical difficulties, with the last of them about to come on-stream any day now. Today, the power system is pumping out more power than it ever has before, beyond 20,000MW every day.

But then, almost like a bad dream, there it was only days after the handover to an interim government: large-scale load-shedding (albeit in a more limited area than in 2013, when it was countrywide). What went wrong? Quickly Nawaz sought to clarify, “we are not responsible for load-shedding any more” since it is the job of the interim government to operate the system they built. Low water inflows into the dams had limited hydel generation, apparently, and some of the LNG plants were about to come online.

The plan is sound in many ways, and might yet work. The only problem is the power sector consists of so many moving parts (generation, transmission, distribution, billing, recovery, payments to banks and fuel suppliers and IPPs, etc...) that one small thing going wrong in one place can send consequences cascading through the entire system. In the run-up to the handover, we saw an example of this when a fault in the switchyard of Guddu thermal power station plunged much of Punjab into darkness.

The system has been built at tremendous cost, and an even larger investment of political capital. Now comes the hour of trial. If it operates smoothly through the summer months, and into election day, it could potentially swing political fortunes. If there is a failure along the way, either deliberate through sabotage or inadvertent (payment constraints or technical glitches), it will ruin the message Nawaz and his people are going to the electorate with.

‘We are the people who get things done, who want to work for the improvement of the country, do you not remember the hours of darkness before we came?’ they will say. ‘And they are stopping us from doing this, because they don’t want your improvement, because that imperils their own interests.’ The language of the campaign will not be about rights and freedoms as much as it will be about material improvements in the lives of ordinary people. ‘Who has delivered more for you,’ they will ask, ‘them or us?’ Nawaz’s bet is that the answer the electorate gives to this question will determine the outcome more than all the shenanigans, all the defections, all the judgements, and all the squawking on the nightly talk shows.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2018