Minister of State for Water and Power Abid Sher Ali (ASA) has inserted his hand into a hornet’s nest. His ministry was berated the other day by Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif for the unannounced increase in electricity load shedding, which in some areas is running at 18-20 hours per day. With tempratures rising on the onset of summer, tempers too have been put on an upward trajectory. Apparently ASA took the PM’s berating to heart, particularly his orders not to spare any defaulter. As a result, ASA ordered high government offices in Islamabad cut off for bills default. The list reads like an institutional who’s who: the Presidency, PM’s Secretariat, the Supreme Court, Parliament House, etc. Though most of these high profile consumers had their electricity restored by evening, this was not before they coughed up the cash they owed. If ASA is to be believed, the list of government offices that owe money reads like a rogue’s gallery. For example, Capital Development Authority of Islamabad owes Rs 2.36 billion, the Sindh government Rs 56 billion, Punjab government Rs 3.4 billion, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan governments Rs 2. 5 billion each, the Presidency Rs 2.8 million, Parliament Lodges Rs 20 million, and the list goes on. The minister says the DISCOs have to recover Rs 475 billion from defaulters and the government Rs 33 billion. It is obvious that the institutions on the list are powerful ‘big fish’ and it has only been possible to move against them because the PM has ordered an ‘indiscriminate’ action to speed up recoveries, failure to do so feeding into the burgeoning circular debt and as a result increased load shedding because about 3,000 MW of generation capacity is lying idle for lack of funds to purchase fuel, etc. One reflection of the indiscriminate nature of the drive is that not only electricity, gas defaulters are also being cut off, including the PM’s office! More than 100 government offices have reportedly been disconnected for electricity bill default in Islamabad alone. Meanwhile the Sindh government and Assembly have reacted to the disconnections in the province as well as what they say are inappropriate or even insulting remarks by ASA about the people of Sindh. It may be recalled that similar complaints surfaced when ASA started his disconnection drive in KP. Both provinces’ governments are complaining about ‘discrimination’ although given the action in the federal capital, that argument has been somewhat weakened. However, a word of advice to the doughty minister: the task you have taken up is inherently tough and you are not going to win any popularity stakes anyway, but you may not be doing your cause much good by inserting remarks about the people of provinces other than Punjab in your statements when all that is needed is a business like approach saying that no defaulter, high or low, government or private, will be spared in the interests of controlling if not ending the energy crisis. That would avoid smokescreens being thrown up by those on the receiving end of your drive centred on sub-nationalism.
We have been arguing in this space that the biggest defaulter of electricity dues is the government itself, and the figures quoted by ASA bear this out. However, this should not lull us into thinking that defaulters do not exist in the private sector too. The government default reflects a culture of impunity and being above the law across ministries, departments, institutions and the provinces, since we are the ‘government’. Private sector (and perhaps even government default) means collusion between the consumer and the electricity staff. While ASA cleans up the Augean stables of government and private sector default mercilessly by simply cutting off all defaulters without discrimination until and unless they pay up, it would not hurt to revisit the widely held perception that it is easy to bribe electricity staff in order to get no or at least reduced bills. Obviously theft and default deprive the country of full generation capacity because of circular debt, and the honest consumer of the facility of uninterrupted power supply, which he/she thoroughly deserves. While welcoming therefore the very late but welcome drive against defaulters, it defies logic when ASA reveals that high density default areas are being subjected to 18-20 hours load shedding while less dense default areas are ‘only’ subjected to 6-8 hours. What is the basis for this? The honest consumers in the high default areas are unnecessarily being punished for no fault of their own, while the defaulters in less dense areas are getting away lightly. Far better to stick to the punishment of cutting off individual consumers rather than this novel ‘collective punishment’ approach.*