In the fourth year of its rule, the government has held its third ‘energy conference’ that has yielded nothing that the other three did not. At this stage, continuing to hold long and ‘high profile’ discussions about the energy crisis does nothing more than demonstrate the government’s lack of seriousness about the issue.
October 2011 is not that long ago, and that is the month in which our lethargic Minister of Water and Power, Mr Naveed Qamar — the makhdoom from Hyderabad — held his midnight press conference at the end of a long deliberation by the cabinet on the state of the energy crisis in the country. The deficit between supply of and demand for electricity had touched 7500 MW, the largest it has ever been, and riots had engulfed cities and towns across Punjab.
Who even remembers the promises that were made back then? Here’s a refresher: we were told the government has a handle on the power situation, that there is a new plan, that the situation would be “brought under control” within “48 hours” (at another point in the same press conference, he said it will take “36 hours” to bring the situation under control), that he was “sorry” that the public had to suffer through such prolonged power outages.
And then came the kicker. This time, we were told, the government was serious. This time it was “no more Mr Nice Guy”. This time a series of “reforms” would be initiated that would bring professional management to the country’s power sector, taking matters out of the hands of the power bureaucracy. “There will be no more sacred cows in the matter of bill recoveries,” he famously declared, creating the following day’s headlines. I’ll bet ‘sacred cows’ everywhere chuckled. “There’ll be no more ministers very soon either buddy, if you’re not careful,” they probably said to each other. “What were sacred cows doing in the picture to start off with, Mr Minister?” I asked in “Pakistan’s power woes” (October 5, 2011, The Express Tribune), a piece I wrote right after watching that press conference. How painful it is to retrace those steps now!
On November 21 last year, minister Naveed Qamar presented a list of some of these ‘sacred cows’ to the National Assembly in a written reply to a question. The list gave a breakdown of which government department owed how much on outstanding electricity bills, and included Rs3.5 million owed by the Supreme Court, Rs422 million owed by the Pakistan Railways, Rs120 million by the Rangers, Rs49 million by the Senate, Rs8.2 million by the ISI and so on, rising to a grand total of Rs70 billion. A brief light was cast upon the ‘sacred cows’, putting names and numbers together in a rare moment.
But by February of this year the ‘sacred cows’ had their way. PEPCO’s receivables rose by 21 per cent in six months to cross a record Rs347 billion. Further ‘meetings’ were held to determine who owed how much, and the government of Punjab found itself having to rebut public claims from the ruling party’s people that it owed the largest amount, being forced to remind the public through a handout that the provincial governments owed more than Rs76 billion, of which Punjab’s share was around three billion, if one deducted the amount owed to Punjab in the form of electricity duty collected on its behalf by PEPCO.
By December 2011, however, a category known in official circles as ‘influential defaulters’ had an outstanding amount of Rs98 billion, an amount that had stood at Rs80 billion about three months earlier, according to a report published in this paper. How did this amount rise by so much at a time when the government was supposedly launching a ‘recovery drive’ of sorts to end the era of ‘sacred cows’?
One answer is provided when we look at what happened when the government tried to move against the ‘sacred cows’ from November onwards. First, the matter got sucked into the political whirlpool that consumes all efforts to reform our government structure and policymaking. Loud and cantankerous efforts were made to collect a bill from Punjab with no corresponding effort to collect a much larger amount from the provincial government of Sindh, for instance, thus ensuring that the entire exercise will become another casualty in the political firing line.
Second, the effort to collect outstanding power bills ran into counterclaims from the ‘sacred cows’, which argued that amounts owed to them under other heads should be adjusted against the recoverables. So if KESC owes to PEPCO for power purchases, the finance ministry owed to KESC for tariff differential claims. KESC therefore holds payment until the finance minister delivers, and if pressed, offers to adjust its receivables against its payables. Resolving ‘anomalies’ such as these conflicting claims can take years, which leaves the power sector equally illiquid, and the exercise loses its purpose.
Throughout the so-called ‘energy conference’ hosted by the prime minister, the ‘sacred cows’ smiled. Coming at the end of a months-long effort to collect outstanding bills, this conference made no mention of where the amount of recoverables stands today, no effort to tally the successes and failures of the so-called recovery drive from November onwards. No follow-up list of the ‘sacred cows’ that continue enjoying their access to free and abundant electricity. No effort to seek a way out of the impasse created when recovery efforts run into counterclaims and ‘anomalies’ in the billing process.
In fact, the ‘energy conference’ was little more than a waste of the government’s energy spent in talking about futile efforts to ‘equitably’ share the burden of loadshedding (what formula will be used to determine which province should get how much electricity?). Meanwhile the great wheel of misfortune continues to turn, and the ‘sacred cows’ will continue to chew their cud as our streets burn and our children carry on their education by candlelight.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 12th, 2012.
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