Apr 24, 2010

Power plan

The steps announced by the government to combat a steadily mounting power shortfall that has threatened to paralyse life across the country have been closely followed by concerned citizens. What they wonder though is if it would prove possible to enforce the measures decided on after a high-level meeting in the capital. Certainly, in the past, lack of implementation has been a huge factor in holding up steps put down on paper. There are some indications that such a problem could arise once again. Traders, most notably in Punjab, have baulked at the idea of closing markets by 8pm. This is hardly a surprise. As a consequence of a number of factors that include inflation, terrorism and loadshedding, shop-owners everywhere already complain that they are suffering significant losses. The early shutting down of shopping centres could further reduce the flow of customers who generally shop after sundown when men return home from work. Although the Punjab chief minister has requested the cooperation of traders and they have, for now, complied, yet one must ask what the cost will be in economic terms. This factor will determine if the measure can be sustained. In the past, market committees have defied government orders and kept the shutters open till late at night. In Lahore, the police have already cracked down – rather viciously – on some who are defying official orders. The question is if we are to see more violence in the days ahead or if the provincial government will indeed be able to win support from the people.

The other steps, aimed at cutting the power deficit by 500 megawatts a day and thereby reducing loadshedding by 33 per cent, include a 50 per cent reduction in the use of lights at the Prime Minister's House, the Presidency and other official residences in the provinces. Government offices will observe a two-day holiday. Circular debt is also to be retired, making it possible for power companies to run more efficiently. It is difficult to judge in advance what the impact of this will be, but we must hope the strategy works in coping with the devastating energy situation we face. The central issue here, however, goes quite beyond that of power – and whether machinery, lights and fans can be made to run. Instead it is fundamentally related to the credibility of the government. Doubts have been expressed, and indeed continue to be cast, whether the crisis is quite as acute as it has been made to seem or feel. There are consistent allegations that the extent of the deficit has been exaggerated to pave the way for RPPs and IPPs to be installed. It is hard to say how much truth there is in this. But perhaps the energy summit can offer some reassurance that efforts are being made to solve the crisis. The government though must keep in mind that people will not forgive it if they find – in time – that the power crisis was in anyway artificially manufactured, or that the losses and suffering it inflicted on millions could have been avoided.