The joint sitting of Parliament had been specifically summoned to debate recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS), so that it could accord approval to the anticipated restoration of Nato supplies, suspended since Nato gunship helicopters attacked the Pakistani checkpost, but it abandoned this task the day after power protests had resulted in the death of a protester in Lahore.
The timing of the protests were worrying for two reasons. First, the season was not yet one where fans, air conditioners and room coolers were being turned on, something which would have added to the demand for electricity. Thus, the protests were not fuelled by the rage brought on by the effects of heat. Second, the Arab Spring, which had seen protests in virtually every Arab country, and which had seen regimes falling in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and which were not yet over in Syria despite a massive bloodletting, had occurred just over a year before. The PPP government apparently did not see its way to surviving long enough in office, in the face of such protests, to let the elections due less than a year from now, take place.
The protests were enough to cause Parliament to put off the debate on the PCNS recommendations. After all, power seemed more of a topic that aroused public concern than foreign policy. It was easier to debate, as a subject which MNAs and Senators found easier to deal with than foreign policy, about which they were given to understand they were ignorant. MNAs and MPAs were portrayed as ignorant backwoodsmen, who would do best to leave such complicated matters as foreign policy to the experts, a category comprising both military men and diplomats. This meant that the petrol prices were something that members of Parliament were better able to discuss, not so much because they were more knowledgeable about it, as because they were more used to discussing it.
It must not be forgotten that both the ruling PPP and the opposition PML-N have equal reason to be afraid of the consequences of the power protests, for if they are unleashed to their fullest extent, they would jeopardise the very elections that the PML-N hopes will take it into power.
At the same time, there has been a highlighting of another issue that the PML-N would like to take along, that of the petrol price hike. This has a relationship to the power crisis through two sources. One is the direct one of furnace oil, used by thermal generation plants, mostly independent power producers (IPPs) and rental power plants (RPPs), and through PSO, Pakistan State Oil, which supplies these RPPs and IPPs with furnace oil after importing it. When petrol prices go up, so do furnace oil prices, adding to the generation cost. There is a huge pile of circular debt, and PSO would long have stopped supplying furnace oil if it had not been owned by the government. However, the ordinary consumer is not concerned about whether the circular debt has crossed the trillion-rupee mark or not, but whether he is getting electricity or not.
This brings us to the second commonality between the fuel and power crises: The deep interest of the international finance institutions. Whereas the Government of Pakistan has said both unequivocally and repeatedly that it is not interested in another programme, it has apparently kept its powder dry, and is keeping those institutions engaged, following their instructions, as if in preparation for a future loan. On the one hand, they insist on an end to fuel subsidies and, on the other, they insist on the so-called ‘power sector reforms’ with the emphasis on ending circular debt.
However, the international finance institutions have not accommodated within their conception of the power sector of it as not just an engine of growth, but as a prerequisite of production, with the natural implications for job creation and maintenance, and for exports. To put it bluntly, loadshedding means factories closing and workers losing their jobs. The loss of orders is an earlier stage for exporters, but the net result is that the national economy suffers.
One of the more interesting solutions has been put forward by the PML-Q, that the provincial governments allow the diversion of the money they would receive under the National Finance Commission Award to pay off the circular debt. That the money is to pay for current expenditure as well as development, and reflects a federal ire at money it collects going to the provinces, because the PML-Q is a coalition partner of the PPP. Also, since the PML-Q would like to rule in the Punjab, it has an interest in making the PML-N, which rules there, look as if it was not taking a step that could solve the power crisis. Otherwise, the responsibility lies, as the joint sitting showed, entirely on the central government.
One problem that is infrequently mentioned is that both power and fuel are in private hands. This shows the dangers of putting utilities in private hands, and should give pause to those who wish to sell off functions like solid waste management to the private sector. Also, this quasi-privatisation has meant the ignoring of the Saying of the Holy Prophet (PBUH): People share in three things - water, pasture and fire.
These are the three most common things people had, and introduces the concept of a second kind of state ownership, where it is a trustee over certain things, including sources of energy (fire). This means that oil and power must be given at cost, and the bloated profits enjoyed by oil companies and IPPs cannot be allowed.
It is a paradox that this Saying cannot be implemented even though the Muslims control the majority of the world’s sources of power, because they are divided into nation-states, which are ruled by dynasties that profit from the oil wealth which they rake off a share from, in return for letting it fuel the capitalist economies of the world.
The government seems caught in a dilemma. It wants the joint sitting to authorise the restoration of Nato supplies, and it wants the power crisis to disappear. However, it should not expect people used to being cooled in summers from forgiving breakdowns easily. Therefore, it should either somehow bring power to the public, or be ready for a long summer of loadshedding to be followed by elections. The way things are going, the holding of elections would be an achievement. It must acknowledge that the power shortage is not caused by the enemies of democracy, but themselves.
n The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation.