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Loadshedding: the social impact

The election fever that had gripped the country seems to be over. It has been replaced, sadly, by an unprecedented wave of loadshedding across the country. Major urban centres are facing the same amount of loadshedding that semi-urban and rural areas have suffered in the last few years. Loadshedding, coupled with a scorching heat wave has made life miserable for people who can’t afford generators.

The economic costs of loadshedding are well-known but the societal impact of loadshedding still needs to be investigated. The burgeoning class divide in Pakistan can be characterised by the means used by people to cope with the shortage of electricity. The rich can afford generators, while the middle class opts for UPS (uninterrupted power supply source) devices, while those who can’t afford either of these luxuries have nothing to turn to – and continue to suffer.

It is difficult to quantify the effect of loadshedding on students who have to study for exams that can potentially change their lives. It is also difficult to quantify the effect these power outages have on children who grew up during the last five years’ on those who are ill; on those visiting from other countries; or on people who can’t get proper sleep on a regular basis.

Would anyone risk their lives by boarding a plane whose pilot did not get enough sleep due to loadshedding or a surgeon who has not had proper rest in the last few hours? These undocumented problems that are a direct result of loadshedding are affecting our society as a whole. Unless some remedy is provided, the latent aggression in the society is bound to increase.

With rural areas getting access to electricity in the 1980s and the increased usage of electrical appliances in the last ten years – mainly due to the easily available instalment culture – the consumption of electricity has increased exponentially, thus burdening the existing supply system.

A major underlying cause of loadshedding is the circular debt accrued over the years by the government. In the past two decades, short-term policies by successive governments have only exacerbated the power shortage problem. Apart from circular debt, line losses, theft and non-payment by various governmental departments are also issues that need to be sorted out.

Another important step that needs to be taken is to explore alternative ways of generating electricity. Currently, Pakistan gets energy via thermal and hydel sources. Thermal power plants require furnace oil which is subject to international pricing and thus an expensive option.

Solar energy, wind energy and tidal energy are the future of sustainable energy and a state-initiated drive to explore these options is necessary.

The incoming federal government has its plate full with diverse issues ranging from the economy to foreign policy. However, finding a cure to the problem of loadshedding should be a top priority for the decision-makers.

The population growth in Pakistan is adding another thousand megawatts per year on the national grid, according to experts. Our chief economic ally, the United States, has spent more than US$200 million in the last few years to increase the capacity of our national grid, but the gains have been very slow to materialise.

According to a news report published by the BBC a few years ago, our government institutions owed US$2 billion to the national power company. The biggest defaulter was the Ministry of Defence, followed by the Presidency and the Supreme Court.

Even if the reported US$15 billion aid from Saudi Arabia arrives, the infrastructural problems are not going to be solved any time soon. Combining the ministries for water, power, petroleum, oil and gas into a single portfolio is a step in the right direction. This has to be followed by structural reforms aimed at collecting outstanding and future electricity bills from government organisations and private enterprises.

A lot of people in Punjab voted for the PML-N because of the party’s promises regarding the electricity situation. The incoming federal government needs to tackle this issue head-on and provide the service delivery that formed its cause célèbre during the elections. There might still be some light at the end of this tunnel.

The writer is a doctor based in Lahore.He tweets @abdulmajeedabid

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