Handling protests prudently

Mansoor Ahmad
Tuesday, Aug 29, 2023

LAHORE: Cosmetic measures, such as the withdrawal of free electricity facility of government employees, while compensating them monetarily for it would not work as it would increase the fiscal deficit.

Handling protests in a situation where the government is constrained to increase the rates of power and petroleum products, while the public is already struggling with high inflation and reduced purchasing power requires a balanced and thoughtful approach.

Decision taken behind closed doors would be ineffective. The government should communicate openly with the public about the economic challenges the country is facing, including the reasons for the increase in power and petroleum product rates. Transparency can help build understanding and mitigate some of the frustrations.

While it might not be feasible to completely avoid rate increases, the government can consider targeted subsidy programmes to help the vulnerable and low-income populations cope with the higher costs. This can include subsidies on essential utilities for those most affected by the rate hikes. The state should launch information campaigns to educate the public about the economic realities of the country. Explain that these increases are not arbitrary, but are a response to external factors that are beyond the government’s control.

Masses must be convinced that the government is serious in eradicating incompetence and corruption from the system. At the same time the public must be assured that nobody would get free electricity on state account. The facility should be withdrawn forthwith. In fact free power and petrol facilities allowed for some high officials and government executives exceeds the basic salary that they draw. Like all other government employees, they should be entitled to salary only.

The state must ensure that the increased rates are justified based on actual costs and are not inflated. Additionally, the government should take measures to enhance efficiency and reduce waste in sectors affected by the rate hikes.

Investment in alternative energy sources must be the priority of the state besides resource diversification to reduce reliance on imported petroleum products. This can lead to more stable energy costs in the long-term and reduce vulnerability to global market fluctuations.

The government must engage with representative groups from civil society, industry, and labour unions to discuss the challenges and potential solutions. This can help in understanding concerns and formulating more comprehensive policies. To ease the burden on households and businesses, the government should implement transparent and prudent measures. This could include tax breaks, direct financial assistance, or assistance in accessing credit to offset the impact of higher costs.

Pressure on power and petroleum prices would continue until the state develops comprehensive economic reforms aimed at addressing underlying issues such as currency instability, inflation, and dependency on imported energy. Long-term strategies can mitigate future crises of this nature.

There should be a dedicated platform for dialogue between government representatives, civil society, and protesters. This can provide a space for grievances to be aired and solutions to be explored collaboratively.

While protests are a fundamental right, it should be ensured that demonstrations are peaceful and respect the law. Law enforcement agencies should be trained in handling peaceful protests without resorting to excessive force. Instead of avoiding the media, the concerned state agencies should give them accurate and unbiased coverage of the situation, disseminating both the government’s perspective and the concerns of the protesters. This can help in fostering a more informed public discourse. In such a complex situation, the key is to strike a balance between economic necessity and the well-being of the population. By implementing a combination of short-term relief measures and long-term structural changes, the government can work to address the concerns of the public, at the same time still managing the economic challenges at hand.