ACCORDING to World Bank statistics, Pakistan is among the countries having a high proportion of population without electricity. Only 74 per cent of its population has access to power, which, sadly, has been static for two decades.
Globally, Pakistan ranks 149 out of 196 countries, even behind Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Almost 100 million people, mostly in rural areas, remain deprived of the necessity, which places Pakistan at the 40th position among 88 countries in terms of availability of electricity in rural areas.
Rural electrification plays a critical role in achieving rapid economic growth. Improvement in the quality of rural life and productive activities in agriculture, industry and commerce cannot be envisioned without the use of electricity. The difficulties that have plagued some efforts in the past in this direction with the help of international donor agencies range from high costs and poor quality of supply to disappointing load growth and low benefits, as the number of connections per kilometre of the transmission line and load per connection tend to be small.
Rural electrification, which should have been the cornerstone of each government’s policy was never given due importance even though such a policy would have gone a long way towards overall poverty reduction. The focus remained on the extension of the national grid and the electrification of villages near the major cities.
The grid electricity is expensive and there are challenges in terms of building transmission lines in far-flung and rough-terrain locations covering a mix of farms, villages and small towns. Thus, there has to be a practical solution to provide the least-cost electricity not only for improving the quality of life of the residents in these remote areas, but also for achieving the cherished goal of developing tourism and cottage industries that could generate employment opportunities.
The off-grid solutions are the most appropriate not only from the locations’ point of view, but, more importantly, in view of electricity tariff since the locals cannot afford to pay higher charges.
There are some 50,000 villages in the country with a population of up to 2,000 people per village. Most of these villages are not connected with the national grid. Therefore, decentralised electric power generation, or isolated generators, should play an increasing role in some areas.
Mini coal-fired power plants of 5MW capacity could be installed in Balochistan where population density is 36 persons per square kilometre. The coastal areas of Balochistan and Sindh are most suited for installing wind-power units. Small-capacity solar units can be installed in Punjab.
Nonetheless, the focus of successive governments has remained on setting up medium-sized 50MW/100MW solar parks and 50MW wind farms connected to the national grid. Mini and small hydropower plants provide electricity to rural areas in Gilgit-Baltistan with a population density of 21 per square kilometre, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) with a population density of 300 per square kilometre. But this is done at a small scale, and most of the rural areas remain without electricity.
Pakistan has excellent production facilities to undertake manufacturing and supply of units for small coal-fired power plants, solar energy, wind-power units, and hydropower plants, but the domestic engineering industry has never been allowed to effectively participate in developing the power sector.
Thus, over the years, the multi-dimensional character of electricity crisis in Pakistan has assumed various political, societal and economic aspects and effects, threatening the social fibre of the nation. Unfortunately, there seems to be no reason to expect any change in the prevailing situation in the foreseeable future.
Electricity is a vital engine for development, not only in the urban industrial context, but also in rural areas. Rural electrification is a tool for national socioeconomic development and needs to be treated by the government like any other policy instrument.
Hussain Ahmad Siddiqui
Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2021