Access to Power: Electricity and the Infrastructural State in Pakistan
By Ijlal Naqvi
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780197540954
192pp.

Why is it so difficult to reform Pakistan’s electricity sector? Practically every government for the last quarter century has identified this sector as its top priority. And yet, the sector has collected a merry mélange of ailments over the years.

It has ‘loadshedding’ (power cuts) despite excess generation capacity. The subsidies and the cross-subsidies are unable to provide relief to consumers groaning under heavy bills. Customer and staff fatalities rise each year. The International Monetary Fund’s multiple programmes have also focused a great deal on containing this sector’s ballooning fiscal burden. But the sector’s dysfunction feels the same as it did two decades ago. Many Pakistanis ask: why is reform so elusive?

On comes a piece of work that mounts a bold intellectual charge at this question and its infantry of sub-questions. Ijlal Naqvi’s book Access to Power: Electricity and the Infrastructural State in Pakistan is a scholarly exploration of the roots of this sector’s ailments.

Most Pakistani readers would be more familiar with our ‘security state’ which comprises a nebulous apparatus of military hardware and muscle, ideological software and hustle, preening proconsuls, financial foundations, talking heads colonising television screens, and artificial intelligence roaming the night.

A scholarly book looks up close at the workings of the power sector in Pakistan and mounts a bold intellectual charge at the most pressing question of how it can be reformed

In the same vein, Naqvi ably describes the electricity part of Pakistan’s infrastructural state, with its poles and transformers, primitive bureaucratic practices, subsidy flows from one part of the country to the other, private beneficiaries, etc.

A major fruit of this work is Naqvi’s well-researched argument that this infrastructural state serves a role in the grand bargain between Pakistan’s centre and its provinces. This is parallel to how the security state serves to achieve the goals of those who run this country. Using transmission and distribution losses as a proxy for uneven state capacity, he argues that this ‘inequality by design’is an integral part of the system of rule, rather than an absence or erosion of governance.

The unconscionably high electricity losses and low collections in the smaller provinces are thus part of the national dispensation of each province’s relations with the centre and the politics within each province, he argues. And the rules of this band-o-bast (as the Mughals would have called it) constitute the laws of physics that counter reform of Pakistan’s electricity sector. It also helps explain why the state’s capacity to determine outcomes is uneven across the country.

With most of the electricity sector in government ownership (with the notable exception of many power generation plants), the federal government mostly tries to run the entire sector as a single elephantine company. And the results are uneven across the land.

Naqvi’s research also documents how the infrastructural state interacts with Pakistan’s citizens within this framework. And this is where stories of personal encounters between the consumer and the ‘street-level bureaucrat’ enter the book.

Pakistan’s electricity distribution companies are lovingly called ‘Discos’. Naqvi recounts a fable about the Disco official who justifies taking bribes from consumers, even to do his job, if the impugned act does not harm his institution. There is the neighbourhood do-gooder who feigns friends in high places to get things done by Disco staff. Then there is the Disco official, who exchanges favours with officials of vastly different government departments, which binds them to a mutual tolerance of corruption.

Successive governments have failed to address the issues plaguing the power sector | AFP
Successive governments have failed to address the issues plaguing the power sector | AFP

This is the stuff of urban folklore, with unwritten rules that override the sector’s written rules, to determine who will win each little contest in the sector. In this sense, the street catchphrase ‘this is Pakistan!’ becomes the greatest challenge to the hallowed clauses of the Constitution and the electricity laws.

This also helps explain the repeated failures of governance reform (change the Disco boards, let a private party collect bills, etc.) which only focus on the formal rules while ignoring the sector’s informal realities.

It takes an intrepid scholar to commence quantitative analysis on an aspect of Pakistan that is not usually researched by academics. And Naqvi’s boldness meets steep challenges on this count. The feeder-level loss data he receives from the Lahore Electric Supply Company (Lesco) does not have any geo-tagging, which restricts deeper socio-economic analysis of losses.

Pakistanis have a habit of sleepwalking through history as it repeats itself. Only when history is written (and read!) is there a chance that this repetition can be avoided. Access to Power also serves as a veritable history of Pakistan’s electricity sector. It documents the creation myths enshrined in Pakistan’s early five-year plans, which aspired to national integration through large-scale infrastructure development, particularly large dams and canals.

But these very developments ended up raising political consciousness among the smaller provinces and led to strife. Access to Power reviews the tiresome tomes produced in the 21st century about the sector to provide context to the place the sector has reached.

The book also critiques the role of international donors in this evolution. Naqvi outlines the major programmes shaped outside Pakistan without respect to its institutional capacities, and recounts how development actors can force countries to adopt the same governance reform programmes despite acknowledging their past failures.

The author recommends a pluralistic approach to running Pakistan’s infrastructure state, which takes into account the differences from region to region. The sector’s national problems of circular debt and ‘loadshedding’ are connected to behaviour at the lower levels. And the author is vehemently opposed to collective punishment for honest consumers through extra ‘loadshedding’ in high-loss areas.

The greatest value of an academic work is perhaps in the broader questions it raises in addition to the specific ones it answers. And Naqvi’s book answers this demand well: what hope does Pakistan have of fixing the culture of electrical impunity that prevails on the street, across the country? What can private parties achieve in running these Discos?

The experience of K-Electric run by the private sector in Karachi shows great strides in reducing losses and increasing revenue collection. But it also demonstrates the limits K-Electric faces in micro-climates of disorder within Karachi. Here, a comparison of the experiences of a privatised K-Electric and a publicly owned Hyderabad Electric Supply Company (Hesco) next door deserves a scholar’s attention.

The country awaits reform of this sector. And reform it must!

The reviewer works on economic development and is the author of Dou Pakistan:
Har Pakistani Gharanay Tak Khushhaali

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 12th, 2023

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