Power out

Editorial Board
Tuesday, Jan 24, 2023

On Monday, life in Pakistan came to a grinding halt when a fault in the country’s power generation and distribution system – a voltage surge apparently – left millions without electricity. Pakistan, unfortunately, faces power breakdowns frequently; Monday’s outage happened only three months after another major power breakdown. In the last nine years, the country has faced eight power outages. Such is the routine manner in which entire cities, at times the entire country, plunge into darkness that even citizen outrage is muted – most people trying to go through the day as efficiently as they can. In all this, what is most glaring is the sheer incompetence of authorities that have failed to come up with a viable solution to this problem. When out of power, almost all political parties use the power sector to criticize their opponents. That changes quickly however when they are in power. Over the years, successive governments have focused solely on improving generation capacity, without realizing that they need to tackle the infrastructure issues of the generation and distribution system. The power sector is neck-deep in debt, and does not have enough resources to improve its transmission infrastructure. Almost every Pakistani government has gone to the IMF for bailout packages, but little to none work has been done to draft a viable, long-term strategy to pull this important sector out of crisis – governments busy adding more power to the grid through megaprojects, instead of undertaking the thankless task of fixing the power distribution system.

While the people of the country have been forced to accept the nightmare that is our electric power system, this hardly makes them immune to the challenges a powerless country brings. From hospitals and schools to small-scale businesses, everyone reported difficulties in carrying out routine tasks. The country is already witnessing a gas crisis, which means that most people could not cook food or turn on heaters to keep themselves warm during a cold winter. Each time the country faces a power-related problem, government representatives assure people of an inquiry to tackle the underlying causes and ensure that such incidents are not repeated. But every other year, in fact every year, we witness the same problem. When Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif came to power, he had indicated an interest in understanding the country’s power problem. But it seems politics has trumped nearly every serious issue concerning the country and we are back to a repeat of the same old reactions: this time, PTI politicians gladly pouncing on the chance to blame the PDM coalition government for its failure to avoid a nation-wide outage – perhaps forgetting their own government too had faced the same problem. The question is not which party is in power but why the country keeps failing to introduce structural reforms. In this never-ending blame game, the people of Pakistan stand helplessly in the middle, unable to figure out exactly where they went wrong and if they will ever live in a country where there isn’t a constant threat of power breakdowns, gas outages, and water scarcity. It is time for the government to rethink its priorities. Even if this latest incident can be attributed solely to technical faults, this may be a preview of a very dystopian future.