A man rushes into the dessert place Hot Spot in Clifton, Karachi. “Panda off kar,” he shouts urgently to his colleague behind the ice cream counter. Outside, the shrill sound of police cars can be heard as next-door restaurant Damascus’s waiters urge customers to pay their bills and leave.

It’s day one of the energy-saving ban that was implemented in mid-June, requiring markets to close at 9pm and restaurants at 11pm. While in Clifton, there was a pandemic-like pall as the police urged lights to be switched off, at the Tipu Sultan food street there were traffic jams at half past midnight. Cars honked with the impatience all Pakistanis seem to be born with as friends, families and children trooped out of some lit, some dark, eateries. Clearly, not all restaurants intended to follow the rules.

A few days later, a waiter at the decades-old Village restaurant shrugs off the ban. “We close by 12am anyways, closing down an hour early has not impacted us much,” he says expressing much deeper concern over the lack of consistent deliveries amidst the startling high fuel prices.

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Amongst ineffectual measures that die without a whimper, shutting down restaurants early for a month is among the top and seems to have been implemented for a reason as flimsy as the need to be appearing to do something in the face of a Sri Lanka-like crisis. Since then, the ban has been lifted over Eidul Azha and has not been implemented since.

The early closing of eateries, randomly implemented and soon forgotten, was little more than a flimsy political device of appearing to be doing something in the face of a crisis

“Now, home deliveries and takeaway are open 24 hours. We can work till midnight and there are no time restrictions on Saturdays. Thankfully, the energy-saving limitations were revised in a week,” says Saleem Aleem of All Pakistan Restaurant Associations. “Closing one industry will not save costs when malls, ATMs, street lights and billboards are brightly lit,” he adds.

The hordes of boys that play cards deep into the night while drinking copious amounts of tea and guzzling junk food are not the scion of society that will pay taxes. Nor are the little Pathan boys who serve them part of formal labour. They belong to the shadow economy and hence there is no formal record of the number of dhabbas and roadside cafes in Pakistan.

However, guesstimates put the size of the restaurant sector at about Rs134 billion annually with roughly 75,000 eateries. With many small players fighting to eke out survival on one of the end spectrum, and elite restaurants where a small group of people regularly run up bills in tens of thousands of rupees on the other end, there is not enough clout to sway government policy.

Deemed a luxury and part of everyday life, the restaurant sector was the first and arguable amongst the biggest causalities of the pandemic as much as it appears to be of the recession and the energy crisis.

However, restaurateurs and lovers of food and company are resolute. Driving through Karachi while the ban was in place showed its futility as the posher localities were eerily quiet but family and boy groups traipsed around merrily in the lower-income localities. In some locations, youngsters sat in dim light, continuing their nightly ritual.

Some may think the ban could have helped give a boost to the food delivery business, similar to the lockdown days of the pandemic. However, since the ban extended to deliveries, Foodpanda, while fully supporting effective measures of the government, found the situation ‘quite alarming’.

“Generally, online deliveries reduce energy and ancillary costs significantly since orders are delivered efficiently and stacked across customers,” it said in a written statement, acknowledging that the ban was reversed swiftly. As it is, the worsening economic climate has impacted consumer behaviour who now opt for combined orders as opposed to multiple independent orders to cut down on costs when using the delivery app.

Overall, the impact of restrictions that was borne for a few days had as little a consequence for businesses as for the government’s energy-saving measures.

In an interview with Dawn a few weeks back, National Investment Trust Limited Managing Director Adnan Afridi pointed out the flaws in the government’s decision-making process. “Governments, in general, tend to make the right decisions but too late. The current one is no different and is contributing to the current economic crisis.

“Take the commercial closure at 9pm for example. It is a half-baked measure. The initial proposal that was discussed by the power division was that all commercial feeders be switched off at 7pm which would have been a lot more effective.”

Undoubtedly, the horrifyingly tough economic times require proportionate measures to prevent a default of the economy. However, if measures are to be implemented, they need to do so across the board to have a level playing field for all stakeholders. Policies that are mere optics are little more than nuisances that add to uncertainty and erode away the nearly non-existent confidence that the government (any government of Pakistan) enjoys.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 18th, 2022

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