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ISLAMABAD: Admitting that inflated gas bills were a burden on consumers, Petroleum Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan on Saturday offered them a “relief” and said they could pay the hefty bills in four equal instalments.

The facility, according to the minister, will be available to the consumers who have received bills of Rs20,000 or more.

The announcement was made by the minister in the presence of Iftikhar Durrani, the special assistant to the prime minister on media.

Mr Khan termed the decision “a relief” for the consumers who could not afford to pay the bills in one go and yet wanted to avoid disconnection.

The Sui Southern Gas Company Limited (SSGCL) and the Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL) had been directed to refrain from cutting gas supply to such consumers, he said.

Minister criticises PML-N govt for subsidising gas

Mr Khan said the Customer Care Services of the two utilities would remain open on Saturdays and Sundays to facilitate the consumers.

The only justification he gave for the inflated bills was “increased consumption of gas” in severe cold. As a result of increased consumption, he said, low-slab consumers fell into higher-slab category, which was the main reason for the hefty bills.

He, however, expressed the hope that the situation would improve in the next season.

The petroleum minister slammed the policies of previous governments, especially those of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government, under which natural gas was bought at higher rates by the authorities and sold at lower rates. “We are not in a position to pay subsidy, owing to the poor financial health of the gas companies,” he said.

The SSGCL and SNGPL were purchasing gas for Rs487 billion and selling it for Rs332bn, leaving behind a shortfall of Rs155bn. The recent increase in gas rates had allowed the government to reduce the losses to Rs69bn, said Mr Khan.

Without naming anyone, the minister said there was pressure on the government to further increase the rate to reduce the shortfall.

Criticising the previous government’s policies, he said the PML-N government approved gas supply schemes worth Rs55bn before general elections but did not tell the people that Punjab was deficit in gas.

He said that Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were producing surplus gas and had first right on the commodity as enshrined under the Constitution.

The minister said the three provinces were complaining that gas from their shares was being provided to Punjab. He went on to say that some PML-N members had told him that their party won 20 to 30 seats in Punjab in the last general election because they promised to provide gas connections to the people.

The minister also assailed the previous government for not increasing gas price. “We will give people the real picture about the gas companies,” he said, adding the PML-N had left behind a liability of Rs142bn of the gas companies.

Mr Khan said his government was working on various measures, including abolishing duties and taxes on offshore drilling to attract investment and expedite gas exploration in the country. “We will share good news with the people by March,” he said.

However, he warned that in case new gas reserves were not found the current reserves could be depleted by 2027.

The minister clarified that Pakistan produced only 15 per cent of the total gas consumed in the country, the rest was coming from imported fuel.

He said a briefing would be given soon to Prime Minister Imran Khan on gas rates and about agreements with Iran and Qatar besides the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (Tapi) project. However, he said the rate of Tapi project was cheaper. He also said that Turkmenistan’s minister was due to visit Islamabad to give final shape to the agreement and perform its groundbreaking in Pakistan.

About the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, Mr Khan said a technical team from Iran had already visited Pakistan.

To rationalise the costs of gas companies, the minister said their current pay structures would be revised to bring them at par with government pay scales. He said a member of the utilities’ board of directors received an honorarium of Rs115, 000 on attending every meeting.

He said that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries were willing to invest in Pakistan as their confidence had been restored in the country. He said Saudi Arabia was also interested in investing in agriculture besides the oil sector.

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2019