THE electricity blackout that plunged the entire country into darkness late Saturday night is a stark reminder of all that is wrong with our crumbling power sector: poor governance and an incompetent power bureaucracy. The government has suspended seven employees of the Guddu power plant, which is said to be the original source of tripping that cascaded through the entire system leading to the automatic shutdown of generation plants in less than a second. It has also ordered an eyewash of an inquiry, but will not be able to hide the long-standing issues plaguing the power sector.

According to a report in this paper, the three key companies concerned — the Central Power Generation Company (that operates the Guddu plant), NTDC and the National Power Control Centre — have been operating without permanent heads. The post of managing director, NTDC, for example, has not been filled for the last three and a half years. That is not all. Ever since the government started implementing power-sector reforms in the early 1990s, the top jobs in public-sector companies have been handed to the all-knowing PAS officers and, in certain cases, serving or retired generals, replacing the professionals who should have been running the show.

Little wonder the sector has rapidly decayed under those who know nothing of technical issues, causing the accumulation of a debt of over Rs2.3bn, increased T&D losses, electricity theft, lower bill collection, lack of transparency and poor governance.

Power outages and breakdowns are not uncommon in countries. There can be multiple reasons — human, technological, environmental, etc — for such occurrences. But the increasing frequency of such happenings in Pakistan of late should be cause for concern. Although the PTI set-up has tried to blame the latest breakdown on lack of investment in the T&D network by its predecessors, especially the PML-N, there are questions it must answer. How come a system which transports nearly 24,000 MW of electricity without any problem during summer is not good enough to transmit less than half the amount in winter? There has to be some other reason for that.

The government must realise that political point-scoring will not help. It isn’t for the first time that a fault at the Guddu power station has triggered a massive blackout. There have been many such instances, mostly during winters. The fault lies in the way that decisions are made in the power sector, giving more weightage to generation costs (by supplying cheaper electricity to meet the demand of Punjab and KP from the power plants located in Sindh and Balochistan) rather than heeding professional advice. There can be different ways of fixing the poorly managed power sector. But all solutions to the present power muddle anticipate taking power-sector jobs from the bureaucrats and giving them back to those who have been trained for them — and with the freedom to take decisions.

Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2021

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