Who pays the bill?

By Zubeida Mustafa

ELECTRICITY and the energy sector have been in the news for a long time now in Pakistan. The enormous shortfalls in power generation have been the most talked about issue. The corruption factor has also figured prominently with circular debts and illegal connections drawing a lot of flak against the government. The heatwave in Karachi in June leading to the death of about 1,200 people and the proposal for a Heat Health Action Plan that came in its wake should focus public attention on a number of core issues.

Against this backdrop, I asked Yadullah Husain, a Canadian-Pakistani journalist, how he perceives the crisis. Husain was my colleague in Dawn 17 years ago and is today the energy editor at the respected Canadian paper, Financial Post. He has recently won the Newsmaker of the Year award given by the Global Petroleum Survey recognising the services of a journalist covering the oil and gas sector.

yadFor Husain, power breakdowns and load-shedding which have been there for decades are a result of the absence of political will in our leadership. Husain believes that what is essentially needed, apart from other steps, is to “move away from using crude oil as our primary source of electricity. Even at today’s prices, oil is the most expensive energy source for power, yet 36pc of Pakistan’s power sector relies on crude oil. Contrast that to the global average of 5pc”. He speaks of the importance of using renewable energies depending on solar and wind sources. He also points to the 105 trillion cubic feet of shale gas reserves that Pakistan is said to possess and could also be used if only this source were explored and developed.

No one speaks of the gross injustice being inflicted on a majority of Karachi’s population.

These are long term solutions for the authorities to consider. Meanwhile, what I believe should be addressed immediately is the human cost of the mismanagement of the energy sector that has generally not been discussed. Shortfalls of electricity hurt everyone, especially in hot weather, and who doesn’t complain? But why should the discomfort not be shared equally by all? A full page ad by the ministry of water and power a few weeks ago proclaimed that electricity doesn’t come free of cost. Right. The advertisement went on to give the nationwide data for load-shedding ostensibly based on loss/recovery ratio to establish that it is fair. It was not very convincing since it lacked transparency. It claimed that the country is suffering a loss of Rs180bn annually due to unpaid bills and electricity theft. No details were given of the unpaid bills of government offices and the big bosses. Shouldn’t they be named?

Karachi is of course K-Electric’s domain which has not released similar data. Roland D’Souza of Shehri-CBE spoke of KE’s policy of providing uninterrupted power supply to areas which paid and instituting power outages in areas which did not. D’Souza suggested that this policy be set aside for a few days during an emergency when areas that paid could be taken off the grid for a while to give relief to areas that had gone without power for long. A sane suggestion! But why have a policy of inequality in load-shedding at all?

What we need to know is how the losses are calculated. Most heat deaths occurred in low-income areas that one presumes are classified as those that “did not pay”. They are neighbourhoods where millions of small consumers are officially – and understandably — charged at lower rates in the lowest billing slab. Obviously this would not recover the cost of the electricity produced. Intriguingly, no one speaks of this gross injustice being inflicted on a majority of this city’s population. The voices of those who could speak up have been silenced by allowing them the comfort of more hours of power supply.

It is not clear whether the size of the revenues collected from an area determines its entitlement to privileged treatment. If that is the basis of the formula to calculate loss, then the fate of the thousands of small consumers in a low-income area is sealed. Their bills naturally do not come anywhere close to the fabulous amounts chalked up by a few thousand big consumers with their many air-conditioners spewing hot air into the already heated atmosphere.

As for theft, which admittedly is a major problem, it is prevalent all over the city – in rich areas and poor abadis alike. Influential people escape detection because of their clout and “other connections”. And aren’t the circular debts that government departments pile up through unpaid bills also theft, but of another kind? One may also ask why individual connections are not disconnected if a bill is unpaid for a specified period and arrears pile up? The answer is simple. Such corrupt practices are not possible without the collusion of the K-Electric staff. Shouldn’t the power utility begin by putting its own house in order and check electricity theft facilitated by its own functionaries?

Source: Dawn