Thursday, April 22, 2010

LIGHT US UP, PLEASE!

By Farrukh Khan Pitafi

Politicians sitting together in airconditioned rooms and mulling over the proposals submitted by WAPDA bureaucrats can hardly solve anything. If it at all could, it would have helped solve quite a lot already

Moving back to Islamabad has proved to be quite an experience. The city has grown more expensive by the day, not that it was more affordable in the past. But the most remarkable thing about it is the developmental change. Underpasses and flyovers have been built, which were only being thought of when I left. And I did not leave decades ago. Things have been built in not more than three and a half years. Another interesting feature of the city is the compartments in which it has been divided; most galling of all, of course, is the red zone. The name sounds as if we are living in Iraq.

It would not be indulging in hearsay to state that the city has stayed divided for quite some time, even if not for the sake of security. We used to say that between Sector G and F exists an invisible Durand Line, which keeps the have-nots away from the haves. But now something quite different is happening. The haves have been interned in a prison of their own devices. Fear, the mother of all compromises, has done it again.

And this is the place where the 17th Amendment was passed and has now been superseded by the 18th. This is the place where the current chief justice was deposed by a dictator who called himself the most democratic one. It was, of course, somewhere nearby that Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and decades ago her father hanged by her own country’s army upon the orders of its apex court. Now this city is swarming with the political leadership of the country to mull over the solution for our electricity disaster. At least the leaders sound committed today. But is there any real solution in the offing? I do not doubt that the issue of the electricity shortage, consequently the power outages, is a political problem too. I will come to the political part later. But primarily it is a technical matter. Only a committee comprising true professionals can do justice to it. All that the politicians can do is issue accurate data on the state of affairs concerning the electricity issue. The circular debt, the actual shortfall, the real installed capacity, the major bottlenecks, the best options available and the impact of international inflationary pressures and IMF terms on power generation, all can be published on the internet and in the papers within a day or two.

Once that is done, a convention can be called of all of the country’s leading electrical, nuclear and other relevant engineers. For even better measure, leading economists can be called in too. All can sit together to develop a set of proposals that the politicians can later implement. Otherwise, politicians sitting together in airconditioned rooms and mulling over the proposals submitted by WAPDA bureaucrats can hardly solve anything. If it at all could, it would have helped solve quite a lot already.

I know a lot is being said about conservation. We are told not to marry after dark, not to keep our shops open after that and make Saturdays a holiday as well. But with due respect, these are quite foolish suggestions. The only hope of a failing economy’s recovery lies in generating ample economic activity and, in a country where manufacturing industry has hardly ever flourished, functions like weddings and small businesses like shops are generating the actual activity. And now you want to shut them down. Actual conservation can come through putting an end to line losses and power theft. Why will people not steal electricity when wires hang naked on poles in front of their houses? In decent parts of the world, most of the cables are buried underground. It is an open fact that the country’s power authorities have failed miserably to modernise the power distribution system. No matter how much additional electricity you produce, it is bound to be lost in the labyrinth of this sordid system. The actual solution lies somewhere else. Why has WAPDA not improved its distribution system? Because there is no competition! How can we bring about change? By introducing competition, plain and simple. And it should not be an artificial competition. In Karachi, they did privatise KESC but still there is no competitor in terms of distribution.

Private, competing distributors certainly will initially sell electricity at more expensive rates and only the richer part of the population will buy it from them. But this will still lift pressure from the public sector, helping it to reach out to the underprivileged segments of society and perhaps also revamp its own distribution system.

Now comes the political bit. It is good that, finally, the politicians are at least showing active interest in solving this problem. Mian Shahbaz Sharif has even presented a nine-point paper on this. Many of these points are good, some brilliant. But, as I have said earlier, this country produces a good number of world-class technocrats per annum. It is time to consult them.

The prime minister should also be complimented for bringing all provincial heads and influential politicians to one table. This show of solidarity is impressive. But have you wondered why it took our politicians two years to sit together on this very critical issue? Because the country’s political culture was lacking consensus. Thanks to the 18th Amendment there is some consensus now. The government and other influentials need to work on it further.

Pakistan needs to renegotiate its terms of reference with Pakistan. This was a proposal that was actually presented by Mian Nawaz Sharif. His party boasts of a man of experience who could help in this situation because he has stayed free of Pervez Musharraf’s corroding shadows. I am talking about, as you must have guessed, Ishaq Dar. While everyone is complimenting Raza Rabbani, a man I have respected regardless of the 18th Amendment, we often forget the contribution of Ishaq Dar. The amendment would not have been possible without his contribution either. He is important also because he tailored the current term’s first budget. The PML-N needs to come back to the cabinet and we all need to convince it to do so. You will see a marked difference immediately, for democratic consensus and synergy is an absolute sine qua non. The Islamabad I knew could at least accomplish this much.

The writer is an independent columnist and a talk show host. He can be reached at farrukh.khan@pitafi.com
Courtesy DAILY TIMES April 22, 2010

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