Originally posted in The Business Recorder on 27 December 2022
The government took its sweet time to come up with an energy conservation roadmap which, according to news reports, would save the economy over Rs 250 billion. It will be a long time before plans to comprehensively overhaul the entire sector can be rolled out, of course, yet the demand-supply equation must be balanced in the immediate term, so there’s no choice but to implement short-term austerity measures like early closure of markets and introduction of budget-friendly appliances.
However, the centre will need provincial governments to go along with these procedures, so a lot of unnecessary friction would have been avoided by taking all stakeholders on board before thrashing out a policy that has already been much delayed.
This space has repeatedly advocated closing markets and wedding halls early to cut down on power usage, even though such decisions are very unpopular with businesses and traders and will further dent the ruling alliance’s political capital.
But this is something that must be done immediately to avoid a complete collapse of the local economy, which will open industry to far more severe cutbacks than simple, old-fashioned rationing. Interestingly, the government plans to save Rs 56 billion by getting 20 percent of the official workforce to work from home on a rotation basis, Rs 38 billion by enforcing use of energy efficient fans and bulbs, and a further Rs 4 billion by operating streetlights alternatively.
But most important of all, this time it has also incorporated a full-fledged media campaign to raise awareness regarding the depth of the energy emergency as well as the difference that following these new guidelines can make.
Pemra (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) has been directed to ensure implementation of 10 percent public service messaging quota from commercial time and energy conservation messages will now be aired daily between 7pm and 11.30pm. In a country with one of the highest population as well as illiteracy rates in the world, such steps go a long way in spreading the right message and getting the job done.
Hopefully, provincial governments will not put unnecessary hurdles in the way just to make the central government look weak. Let’s not forget that these are also times of historic political polarisation in the country, and there’s every chance of KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Punjab governments playing the spoiler to even other scores; just like they tried to do when the IMF programme was almost bulldozed.
A more mature and responsible bunch of politicians would have put their differences on hold, given the severity of the budget crisis, and given their undivided attention to fixing the economy before taking their gloves off again and resuming their ugly fight. But ours has become an all-or-nothing kind of a political confrontation where everything, including the economy, is fair game in the battle of absolute power and privilege.
That is why it is extremely important to consult all stakeholders while there is still time. Surely, everybody understands that the present situation requires sacrifices and compromises from all parties, and it will not really be possible to achieve a workable consensus without a sensible process of give and take. Such exchanges can also pave the way for future interaction on deeper, longer structural changes that the energy sector is in desperate need of.
So far, this has been just one more area where the political elite has let everybody, from households to industry, down very badly. Yet sooner or later they will have to learn to sit down and work together on areas of critical importance to the people, like having enough affordable energy to run their homes and businesses.
Therefore, how this energy crisis is handled this season will tell a lot not just about central and provincial governments, but also about opposition parties.