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By Rahimullah Yusufzai

The power supply situation was already erratic and difficult in militancy-hit Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the adjoining Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), but the recent destruction of the 500 KV Sheikh Muhammadi Grid Station near Peshawar in a night-time attack by the militants has added to the woes of the consumers.

Sheikh Muhammadi was the only 500 KV grid station in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa out of the 12 operating in Pakistan and was supplying electricity to all the smaller grid stations in Peshawar, Kohat and Hangu. It was receiving electricity from Tarbela and feeding it directly to 10 grid stations. The authorities had to resort to back-feed as was the case in the past when the sprawling grid station spread over eight kanals of land in Sheikh Mohammadi had not been built. As part of emergency measures, Kohat and Hangu are now being supplied electricity from Daudkhel grid station in Mianwali district, Peshawar from Warsak and Pabbi from Mardan.

Apart from the normal outages due to shortage of power generated in the country, extra load management is being done following the damage to the Sheikh Muhammadi Grid Station to prevent overloading of the transmission lines. Consumers in Peshawar, Kohat, Hangu and Pabbi are experiencing more than 12 hours of outages following the destruction of the grid station on the night of April 1-2. There is concern that the situation would worsen with the overloading of the power distribution system as the weather becomes hot and the use of air conditioners increases.

The grid station, located in the troubled Badaber area in rural Peshawar where the militants are active, was put out of operation as its power transformer was blown up with explosives and other installations too were damaged. Seven men including four Wapda employees and three policemen were killed in the assault by militants who came on foot from the adjacent Khyber Agency without being detected or stopped on the way. The four kidnapped Wapda employees were later freed in circumstances that are unclear as the militants normally don’t release government officials unless their men are freed by the authorities and some ransom is paid.

Saeedullah Babar, the chief engineer of the National Transmission and Despatch (NTDC), which manages the grid stations, said they were working day and night to make the Sheikh Muhammadi Grid Station operational again in two months instead of the three months needed to do the job.

The preliminary estimates of the losses at the destroyed grid station have been put at a billion rupees. The final figures would be worked out once the repair work has been completed. Keeping the Sheikh Muhammadi Grid Station and the four other 220 KV grid stations at Shahi Bagh Peshawar, Mardan and Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa safe and operational is critical for regulating and ensuring power supply in the province, but the unchallenged attack on Sheikh Muhammadi exposed its poor security arrangements. It was obvious that such an important and precious electricity plant wasn’t adequately protected. The grid stations and transformers have been among the favourite targets of the militants, who have been destroying schools and other properties owned or run by the government. The government has belatedly realised the gravity of the situation due to the threat of terrorist attacks as decision has been taken to deploy 450 personnel of the Frontier Constabulary at 15 grid stations of 500 KV and 220 KV in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and south Punjab. It still falls short of the demand of the workers’ union in the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda), who are seeking deployment of soldiers from the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps to secure the grid stations.

There are problems galore in terms of the electricity distribution system in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. According to Brigadier (Retd) Tariq Saddozai, the chief executive officer of Peshawar Electric Supply Company (Pesco), inadequate generation of electricity in the country was the reason for 50 percent of the outages, while the remaining 50 percent was due to overloading of the grid stations and distribution system, accounting for 25 percent each. “The focus of attention is the issue of generation of power. We need to pay attention to the issues of overloading of the grid stations and distribution system also,” he argued. He said 350 out of the 724 feeders and 125 of the 192 power transformers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were overloaded and the system could collapse if timely steps weren’t taken to solve the problem. “We need Rs12.6 billion to overhaul the system. The issue has been highlighted to donors, government officials, lawmakers and other stakeholders,” he added.

Transmission line losses and electricity theft are other major challenges not only in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata but also in rest of the country. In fact, Pesco along with the distribution companies in Sukkur, Hyderabad and Quetta are some of the big loss making entities due to a host of reasons, including line losses and theft. According to Brig (Retd) Saddozai, the Pesco’s line losses for the first time have been reduced by 3.8 percent from 36.4 to 32.6 percent through strict checking and a system of rewards and incentives. As one percent line losses translate into an amount of Rs1.25 billion, the 3.8 percent reduction meant savings of around Rs6 billion.

The magnitude of the problem of electricity theft could be gauged from some of the available figures for certain areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the suburban Paharipura area in Peshawar in Pesco’s Lala sub-division, the losses due to theft are 99.9 percent. The figures are 95.5 percent in Regi village, 90 percent in Badaber and 86 percent in Landi Arbab, all part of Peshawar district. The losses are 85 percent each in Moran Koroona and Halimzai in Shabqadar area in Charsadda district, 78 percent in Palosi village sited just behind the campus of University of Peshawar and 62 percent in Yar Hussain village in Swabi and Mardan Cantonment. Other difficult areas with high level of electricity theft and poor recovery are in the southern Bannu district. “We reported 20,000 cases of theft but the police registered the FIR of 69 cases only and none of these cases was followed up,” the Pesco chief executive officer said.

To cope with the problem, it was decided to set up three dedicated police stations in Peshawar, Bannu and Charasadda to focus on electricity theft and the provincial government has already issued notification for the purpose. However, the police stations could not be commissioned by the previous government due to political compulsions as the ruling parties, ANP and PPP, in the province didn’t want to lose the votes of people who were stealing electricity and were liable to be prosecuted. There was hope these police stations would become functional once the caretaker government was installed, but it hasn’t happened yet. Pesco authorities, however, have taken steps to make life a little uncomfortable for consumers in areas where electricity theft is high by increasing the hours of outages there. By the same yardstick, there is less outages in localities in which theft is low and recoveries are high.

However, not much could be done in Fata where most domestic consumers and even commercial users don’t pay any bills. According to Pervez Khankhel Swati, the chief executive officer of Tribal Electric Supply Company (Tesco), the federal government pays the domestic bills for Fata and its last payment was Rs17 billion paid for the arrears from July 2012 to February 2013. “Bills for Rs15 billion are pending with the federal government,” he added. He said Rs8 billion were pending against industrial, commercial and agricultural consumers and government departments and those with arrears of Rs100,000 to Rs1 million had been issued one-month notices through National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to make payment or face arrest. It is the first time that the once feared NAB has become involved in this effort and one would have to wait to know if it would make a difference.

The writer is resident edito of The News in Peshawar.

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