Govt fails to douse anger as citizens burn power bills

Published August 30, 2023
QUETTA: Traders set electricity bills on fire during a protest against the surge in petrol and power prices in front of the Press Club, on Tuesday.—AFP
QUETTA: Traders set electricity bills on fire during a protest against the surge in petrol and power prices in front of the Press Club, on Tuesday.—AFP

• Caretakers await IMF nod before offering any relief measures
• Solangi says decision expected ‘in hours’ as finance minister in talks with Fund

ISLAMABAD: With the nationwide protests over massive power bills growing, the caretaker government has failed to come up with any relief measures as it tries to strike a balance between avoiding drawing the IMF’s ire and causing more citizens to blow a fuse.

In the cabinet meeting presided over by Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar on Tuesday, the interim set-up expressed helplessness on how to address the issue, even on spreading electricity bills in instalments unless the International Monetary Fund cleared it.

Interim Information Minister Murtaza Solangi, who didn’t immediately hold a presser after the cabinet’s meeting, later told a private TV channel that the government was engaging with the IMF regarding relief measures for electricity consumers and an announcement was expected soon.

Mr Solangi told anchor Meher Bokhari that the cabinet took decisions for providing short-, medium- and long-term relief to consumers.

However, he cautioned that these decisions entailed some implications on which the IMF needed to be taken on board. “As we speak, our Finance Minister Shamshad Akhtar is talking to them. So, I hope we will soon be in a position to make the announcement,” he said.

Asked when the announcement would be made, he replied: “It is a matter of few hours. You are aware of the time difference and complications pertaining to talks with the IMF.”

Mr Solangi said he was expecting that a decision would be reached without any difficulty as the relief measures finalised by the caretaker cabinet would not affect the “two pillars” of primary surplus and circular debt.

On a question about when the coming polls would be conducted, the minister told Ms Bokhari that the caretaker government had nothing to do with the election date, insisting that it was the ECP’s mandate under new amendments to the Elections Act.

However, he stressed that the government was committed to helping the ECP in holding elections in line with its schedule, according to an APP report. At the same time, he said that it was imperative to give 54 days to all the political parties after delimitations for election campaigns in line with the Constitution.

Meanwhile, a source privy to Tuesday’s meeting told Dawn that the cabinet noted that the interim set-up could not give any relief to consumers, but it could allow breaking up the bills into four to six instalments. “Even in case of instalments, the government will have to get prior permission from the IMF,” the source said.

Some of the members of the cabinet even opposed the option of instalments and feared that below-target receivables in the power sector in the coming months could irk the IMF.

On the other side, there was a view that consumers could easily pay four to six instalments of inflated bills in the coming months because electricity consumption drastically drops in winter. When asked why the government issued no official word or press release after the cabinet meeting, the source said: “The government was waiting for the IMF’s signal on the option of bill instalments.”

On Monday, Mr Solangi told Dawn that the cabinet would give a “relief in a real manner”, and not just breaking up bills in monthly instalments to ease the burden. However, he had admitted that the government was helpless considering the accord with the International Monetary Fund and that a bloated circular debt would not serve any purpose.

Meanwhile, nationwide protests over power bills entered the fifth day on Tuesday, with citizens taking to the streets, blocking roads and torching their bills as a sign of anger at rising electricity prices.

The Jamaat-i-Islami has also announced a countrywide strike on Sep 2 (Saturday) against electricity bills.

AJK govt’s meeting with traders

A meeting between a ministerial team led by the speaker of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) Legislative Assembly and an action committee of traders and civil society activists ended in a stalemate on Tuesday.

As a result, the traders reiterated that a shutter-down and wheel-jam strike against power bills and other issues of public concern would be observed as per schedule in the Muzaffarabad division on Thursday.

Shaukat Nawaz Mir, the elected president of the traders of Muzaffarabad, who led the action committee at the meeting, told Dawn the meeting was held at the desire of the government, and the official team comprised LA Speaker Chaudhry Latif Akbar and four ministers from Muzaffarabad division.

“When we presented our charter of demands before them, they maintained that any commitment in this regard is beyond their reach and they will have to talk to the prime minister,” he said, adding that this was enough to establish the “helplessness” of the official team.

Tariq Naqash in Muzaffarabad also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2023

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