Punishing entire areas for crime of a few

Published May 16, 2021
Densely populated Lines Area plunges into darkness as the K-Electric routinely carries out loadshedding for over two hours three times a day.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Densely populated Lines Area plunges into darkness as the K-Electric routinely carries out loadshedding for over two hours three times a day.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

THE time was about 10:30pm when I rang the doorbell of a friend living in a middle-income locality in North Karachi. As I entered his home, I got a little confused to see him trying to start a small electricity generator while his house and the entire area were lit. “Light jaanay wali hai (power is about to be cut off),” he said before I even asked. As he finally succeeded in starting the generator and as soon as the clock struck 10:35pm, the whole area plunged into darkness. Seconds later, his entire street was reverberating with the irritating noise of generators as light could be seen in many houses.

He tells me the K-Electric carries out loadshedding three times a day in his area for a total of three to four hours. “They (KE) say our area is in their high-loss category because of electricity theft,” he says, adding: “I have to spend around Rs4,000 to Rs5,000 per month on fuel to run the petrol-based generator.”

The area across the main road was lit and I asked him why there was no loadshedding there. “That area was exempted from loadshedding last year. We hope and pray that KE soon separates our connection from a nearby katchi abadi to exempt our area from loadshedding.”

He says the KE in effect accuses the bill-paying consumers of stealing electricity because it fails to stop theft and install meters in the neighbouring katchi abadi. “I am a star consumer (of KE) but we are bearing the brunt of KE’s inefficiency in the form of loadshedding.”

‘They never listen’

My friend is not the only one who has a genuine grievance against the KE. There are areas in Karachi, where the power utility is carrying out loadshedding for more than six hours on a daily basis in this hot and humid weather just to minimise financial losses from there.

Syed Ali, a pharmacist who lives in Block 9 of Gulistan-i-Jauhar, says KE carries out loadshedding for a total of six hours daily, and did so even in Ramazan. The first spell of loadshedding begins at 11:05am and ends at 1:05pm, the second one lasts from 2:35pm to 4:35pm and the third from 10:05pm to 12:05am.

“Not everyone has power back-up with solar (panels) or generators or UPS... many have newborns, sick and elderly people (living) in these houses... I question KE, why do you do this... but they have no heart... they have the worst management,” he says angrily, adding: “They (KE) say my area has many defaulters. But what do us, the bill payers, have to do with that? I’ve told them many times loadshedding is not the solution; your own people give illegal connections, but they never listen.”

Recently, I visited Baldia Town, where a by-election on a National Assembly seat was being held, and a number of political workers cited water shortage and loadshedding as the two major problems faced by the people there. They told me KE carried out at least six hours of “announced” loadshedding every day and then one to two hours of “unannounced loadshedding on every alternative night in the name of fault and system overloading”.

A ‘considerate strategy’

It is hard to describe the anger I witnessed among the people against KE there, but it seems the utility is neither aware nor interested in listening to the genuine grievances of its consumers.

KE has around 2.5 million consumers and hundreds of thousands of them face loadshedding on a daily basis. But a spokesperson for KE describes the company’s loadshedding policy as a “well-thought-out and considerate strategy for the citizens of Karachi”.

He says: “K-Electric’s Segmented Load Shed (SLS) policy divides feeders based on their loss profile, which is determined by the T&D [transmission and distribution] losses and recovery ratios in any particular area.”

The phenomenon of loadshedding is not new to Karachi. People here used to experience it even before the privatisation of then Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC) in 2005. But earlier it was simply aimed at managing load — to bridge the supply-demand gap through loadshedding — but after privatisation, the incumbent management gave a new meaning to the word “loadshedding”.

It began using it as a tool to punish an entire locality for the crime of power theft by a few. The ruthless policy was adopted over a decade ago and despite all criticism it bore fruit for the company when it reduced its transmission and distribution (T&D) losses and earned profit.

The KE spokesperson says the SLS policy was “so successful in Karachi, in terms of improving financial viability and consumer behaviour that ex-Wapda Discos (distribution companies) have also adopted this model in other parts of the country, and the GoP has formally approved it as part of the National Power Policy 2013”.

Loadshedding to continue

Exempting areas from loadshedding is a long process involving investment in infrastructure such as pole-mounted transformers and cables. Over the years, relief is being provided slowly and gradually to the people of Karachi as many neighbourhoods have become ‘loadshedding-free’.

The KE spokesperson says the success of the scheme is clear from the fact that there has been a shift of several areas from high-loss to low-loss ones and “due to the consistent approach and application of the scheme, over 75 per cent of the feeders (not consumers) are exempted from load shed”.

However, the power utility has no immediate plans to end loadshedding for the whole city. “With continued loss reduction and capacity enhancement initiatives, KE targets to increase the load shed-exempt feeders to 93pc by 2023,” says the KE spokesperson.

Going by his own statement, loadshedding is here to stay as seven per cent of Karachi’s feeders will continue to face announced outages for an indefinite period.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2021

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