KARACHI/LAHORE, March 6: Karachi suffered a major power breakdown on Thursday after the National Transmission and Dispatch Company disconnected supplies to the privatised Karachi Electric Supply Corporation over outstanding dues.
The NTDC is a subsidiary of the Pakistan Electric Power Company (Pepco).
The disruption set off traffic chaos, water shortage, and brought manufacturing and business activities to a shuddering halt in the metropolis of 16 million people.
The outage forced the KESC to carry out staggered loadshedding of at least two hours across the city.
Although the power supply started returning to normal in the evening, large parts of
Karachi were without electricity till late into the night.
Since the KESC has not made any significant investment in the improvement of generation and distribution systems, one cannot rule out that the city’s residents would have to put up with massive power cuts from next month.
The sudden suspension in power supply sparked fears of a violent reaction, but things remained quiet by and large. Persistent outages last summer had triggered widespread rioting.
Irrespective of the payment dispute with Pepco, the KESC chief hinted at an increase in tariff after a rise of four per cent in fuel adjustment charges, already approved by the National Electricity and Power Regulatory Authority, was notified.
As the two utilities engaged in a blame game and made conflicting claims, life in Karachi suffered heavily as none of the organisations showed any understanding of the socio-economic and political implications such a decision could have had on the city, in particular, and the country, in general.
No official could explain why Pepco did not publicise its intention of suspending supplies to KESC in advance.
The breakdown caused the KANUPP and other local generating units to trip, disconnecting supplies even to places like the airport and the port. Hydrants were among the sufferers.
The KESC’s Chief Executive Officer, Lt-Gen (retd) Mohammed Amjad, told a news conference that his organisation had not anticipated a sudden cutoff. “We were hoping that they (Pepco) would go for curtailment, but they opted for disconnection instead.”
He said the outage left no power with KESC to restart generating units as it needed approximately 15 to 20 MW to do so. Hence KESC approached the ministry of water and power. The ministry’s intervention brought about a resumption in supply of 235 MW.
The KESC chief admitted his company owed Rs13.7 billion to NTDC while its receivables on various counts from the government totalled Rs11.3 billion. He termed it a circular debt issue.
Several meetings in Islamabad had failed to resolve the matter, Lt-Gen (retd) Amjad added.
He also said that KESC had replied in writing to several reminders from Pepco and NTDC for payment. “We will pay as and when we receive our dues from the government.”
On Wednesday evening, said Mr Amjad, the KESC received a “final notice” from NTDC stating that unless it paid Rs3 billion immediately, and presented a plan for payment of the balance, the power supply would be disconnected at any moment.
The notice made it clear that KESC would bear the “sole responsibility” in the event of any damage to public or private property caused by violence. Mr Amjad informed newsmen about his organisation’s plans to boost generation capacity this year. Four turbines of the 220 MW plant in Korangi had been installed and two of them had started trial runs, he added.
He said KESC was working on deals with IPPs to raise its output by 1,200 MW.
THE OTHER SIDE: Tahir Basharat Cheema, a Pepco official, had a different version.
He contended that as Pepco supplied only 260mw to KESC, the breakdown must have occurred because of other factors.
He even alleged KESC might itself have switched off the distribution system in order to pressure the federal government for more power supply.
Mr Cheema said KESC owed Rs34.8 billion to Pepco and it had been making only “fractional payment” for over a year.
“When we took over in October last year, weekly notices for clearing the dues were sent to KESC, but supply was maintained to Karachi because it was so important to whole of Pakistan.”
He alleged that none of the notices prompted a reply. “The KESC repaid a mere Rs250 million despite weekly reminders. We sent them a final reminder on Wednesday informing them that we would stop supplying electricity if the dues are not paid,” Mr Cheema said.
The Pepco official said that on Wednesday, one communication was exchanged between the two managing directors and at 7am on Thursday, control rooms kept on urging KESC to reduce its load because by 8am supplies would be disconnected. But no “acknowledgment” came. That explains the “sudden tripping”.
He also disputed the KESC claim that it was unable to revive its generating units without power supply from Pepco. “By using the diesel generating sets at Bin Qasim, the units could have easily been cranked up.”