Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Daily Times Editorial July 2, 2015

Sher Shah Suri II While inaugurating the signal-free corridor of Islamabad Expressway, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resiled from claims associated with his government and tried a dose of realism to mitigate the criticism being heaped on its head regarding load shedding. While the heatwave combined with load shedding has led to the deaths of over 1,200 people in Karachi and interior Sindh, the prime minister found it necessary to finally admit that his government had no ‘quick fix’ for the energy crisis. Not only that, contrary to the general perception, he claimed he had never said load shedding could be overcome within six months, or a year or even two years. He claimed he had said the energy crisis would be overcome by the end of his government’s tenure. He asserted he did not believe in lying to get votes and had therefore not made such extravagant claims even during the campaign for the 2013 elections. In fact he had clearly said during the election campaign that the problem could not be overcome overnight. The prime minister’s claim that load shedding was less than last year can be questioned against the undeniable reality that the supply-demand gap is 5,500 MW. The prime minister followed this up with the classic advice to people to remain patient, not worry about temporary power cuts, and avoid coming out in protest in the streets armed with bricks and sticks as this provided no solution. People should realise, he added, that at least the government was moving in the right direction. He then quoted several power projects in the pipeline and claimed the credit for his government having reduced the electricity tariff by Rs 5.32 per unit. The superb irony in the prime minister holding out promises of ending load shedding by 2017 while inaugurating one more project of his favourite infrastructure -- roads -- obviously escaped him. Despite his rhetorical claim that ending load shedding by 2017 was his top priority, there he was inaugurating another expressway for the benefit of road users. The critique of the government’s priorities since it assumed power two years ago has centred precisely on the penchant of the prime minister, his federal government, and the Punjab PML-N government headed by his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif to prioritise showpiece projects revolving around roads, to the detriment, arguably, of energy and other dire social needs such as health and education. Soon after the PML-N government came to power, it conducted a presentation in Islamabad to the media, spelling out its plan for the energy crisis. The plan correctly identified three areas of focus and concern: the power deficit, nudging the energy mix towards affordability, and upgrading the creaking power infrastructure, national grid, etc. The only problem with the plan presentation was the conspicuous absence of a timeframe in which all these tasks would be completed, as well as the financial projections of cost and resources without which any such plan would remain pie-in-the-sky. Reliance was placed (more implicitly than explicitly) on the private sector coming forward to take up the tasks. The inability of the government to see that some tasks would not attract the private sector for reasons of low profitability was due more to its ideological blinkers against public sector contribution to the power sector, either by itself on in partnership with the private sector. Since the received wisdom for many years has been that all public sector enterprises are inefficient (not held up by empirical evidence), the idea that the slack in private sector contribution to the power sector could be taken up by public sector entities either did not occur to the bright minds in government or if it did, was shot down and dismissed out of hand as so passé. The result of this ‘fluffing’ two years down the road is that power projects in progress notwithstanding, the pace of increasing power generation nowhere near matches the gravity of the crisis. Nor is there a palpable shift in meaningful terms, despite some good work in renewables, towards a more affordable energy mix that could in turn relieve any real or perceived subsidy by the government. As for the national grid and power infrastructure, it seems to have been treated as the poor relative at the door begging for handouts. The obsession with roads and such infrastructure has been dubbed by the wags as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ‘Sher Shah Suri II’ syndrome. True or not, if the prime minister wants to avoid this appellation, he had better re-prioritise energy over all else or be prepared to suffer a fate not very different from the real Sher Shah Suri.

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