Energy crisis deepens

PAKISTANIS stumbled on to 2009 in the dark, with no gas to keep them warm in the winter. Many are lining up at petrol pumps. This is not how a people should enter a new year. The energy shortage is worsening by the day, in fact by the hour. The average duration of rolling power blackouts has more than doubled to 18 hours a day of late, from eight hours in the summer. This is the situation despite the reduction of 6,000 MW in demand from the summer peak of 17,000 MW. Domestic and industrial consumers in Punjab and the NWFP are facing gas supply cuts due to a widening supply-demand gap. Adding insult to injury, the government has raised gas rates but refuses to reduce oil prices in line with the global trend. No wonder, people are protesting in Rawalpindi, Faisalabad and Lahore.

Like all bad things the energy shortage is blamed on the previous government which not only failed to see the oncoming crisis but was also unsuccessful in attracting investment to the power and gas sector for several years. However, the people have every right to ask the incumbent rulers as to what steps they are taking to remedy the situation. Did they see the crisis worsening during the winter? If they didn’t, how could they be any better than their predecessors? If they did, what did they do to augment power and gas supplies? The state, which otherwise has a strong presence in public life, was nowhere to be seen when petrol station owners, expecting a fall in oil prices, stopped buying and supplying fuel to consumers. Now the people are being told that President Asif Zardari has convened a meeting to sort things out. Officials claim that the shortages will be overcome by the end of the current year. But until then, there does not seem to be any light at the end of a very dark tunnel. The problem is aggravated with a lack of visible activity on the part of the government. A sense of helplessness prevails. A decisive remedial step now, however unlikely it may seem under the circumstances, will not only benefit the people, it will give a boost to the government which has drawn flak in recent days over its real or perceived inability to move forward.

The implications of the energy crisis for the economy are huge. The risk of an economic downturn, and consequently of widespread unemployment, will increase if the shortages are allowed to persist for long. That will have serious social and political consequences. It is high time that the government got down to resolving the problem on a fast-track basis rather than appear to wait for the end of 2009.

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