Dawn Editorial 16th August 2023

Power sector debt

PAKISTAN’S moribund power sector has become the Achilles heel of its faltering economy. The losses suffered by a frail economy in the last two decades due to power sector failures are perhaps surpassed only by the damages inflicted by terrorism. The accumulation of massive circular debt — the cash shortfall across the power sector supply chain — is a manifestation of a deep-seated crisis facing the single-most important sector upon which hangs Pakistan’s present and future economic stability and competitiveness. The incompetence of the power sector bureaucracy to tackle the structural issues plaguing this sector means that debt shot up to Rs2.31tr at the end of the last fiscal year from Rs2.25tr the previous year.

There are multiple reasons that have led to the accumulation of massive circular debt. For example, Pakistan’s reliance on expensive imported fuels for producing electricity is incredibly high, and its transition to renewables and domestic fuels very slow. Other sources of this mountain of debt involve widespread power theft, soaring distribution system losses and an inefficient electricity grid. On top of that, distribution companies are unable to collect bills. Many consumers, including government departments, do not pay their electricity bills and distribution firms cannot take punitive action against them. At some places, the law and order situation keeps power companies from collecting bills from consumers. Rather than dealing with these structural issues, successive governments have doled out trillions in power subsidies, as well as frequently increased electricity rates to slow down growth in the outstanding stock of power-sector arrears. The last government cumulatively hiked electricity prices twice by over Rs15 per unit to Rs50 a unit since July last year. This has made electricity unaffordable for consumers — industrial, commercial and residential — and hampered economic growth. Expensive electricity is the main reason our exports are no longer globally competitive. Expecting the economy to stabilise and grow without addressing power-sector inefficiencies and mounting debt would be folly.

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2023

Troll armies

THE country’s political culture has never plumbed the levels of crassness that have been on display since the last few years. Fuelled by self-righteous rage, the trolling takes on a vicious performative aspect thanks to social media. It respects neither personal space nor geographical boundaries. Anyone, anywhere, is fair game. The past week has been particularly brutal. On Monday, former PML-N lawmaker Hina Pervaiz Butt — while accompanied by her teenage son — was accosted by hecklers on the streets of London: a number of video clips circulating on social media showed her at the receiving end of verbal abuse, as well as taunts hurled at her party leader, Nawaz Sharif. Some days ago, Judge Humayun Dilawar, who found Imran Khan guilty in the Toshakhana case and sentenced him to three years in prison, found himself similarly targeted by PTI supporters in the UK while attending a judicial training course in Hull. Last year, PML-N leader Marriyum Aurangzeb was confronted by a hostile group of Pakistanis in London while she was inside a store. Groups of hecklers shouting slogans and even on occasion vandalising property have become a regular feature outside Mr Sharif’s residence in the British capital. These displays of animosity achieve little but betray an inflated sense of self-importance and bring Pakistan into disrepute.

Political differences, howsoever sharp, do not have to reach a stage where they breach the basic norms of decency. Unfortunately, the PTI chairman cultivated a reductive, black-and-white narrative against many mainstream politicians in intemperate and rabble-rousing language that encouraged the party’s fervid support base to target these individuals or, indeed, anyone critical of Mr Khan. The apparent carte blanche combined with the PTI’s social media savvy saw many an online lynching of opposition politicians as well as independent-minded journalists. Women journalists were particularly singled out for character assassination and horrifying sexualised trolling. Sometimes, incendiary tweets designed to provoke cyber mobs emerged from what seemed to be PTI-linked social media accounts. So polarised is the atmosphere that political parties were identified by journalists as the largest single-source threat actor that targeted them between 2022-2023. Certainly, leaders of other political parties have also used unseemly language against those across the aisle — some are repeat offenders especially where sexist rhetoric is concerned — but the PTI has brought political discourse down to where it is a consistent race to the bottom.

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2023

On a tightrope

WITH the country now in election mode, all eyes will be on the Election Commission of Pakistan, which must ensure that the upcoming polls are held fairly and on time.

The watchdog will be walking a tightrope due to the last-minute notification of fresh census results by the former PDM government, which has necessitated the fresh delimitation of constituencies.

The prevalent belief is that the ECP will not be able to complete the delimitation while meeting the election time frame stipulated in the Constitution. At the same time, recent developments have restricted the space for any legal manoeuvring.

It may be recalled that a three-member bench of the apex court had, earlier this month, issued a detailed judgement castigating the ECP’s decision to postpone elections for the Punjab and KP assemblies as ‘unconstitutional’. The judgement in question had severely rebuked the ECP for “failing to appreciate its constitutional authority” over its failure to hold elections on time.

A week later, the court also struck down a law that would have allowed the ECP to seek a review of that judgement. Yesterday, the court weighed in on the delimitation of constituencies as a two-member bench heard a 2018 petition on the same matter. Observing that the ECP must conduct the exercise in a transparent manner, the chief justice, who was part of the bench, described the issue as “a matter of public interest”, which has been brought to the Supreme Court multiple times.

With the legal noose tightening around the ECP’s neck, it must also contend with the complications of the task before it. According to an analysis published in these pages, the delimitation exercise will likely end up affecting dozens of districts at the provincial level.

As there is no National Assembly to simply increase the number of seats in the provincial assemblies to reflect changes in the population, the ECP may have to redistribute existing seats between different districts within provinces. It may also have to create new constituencies such that parts of one district may share a constituency with parts of another.

Either of these could trigger a political uproar and lead to multiple new legal challenges, which would imperil the timely completion of the entire exercise. Amidst all this, the ECP must also undertake the delicate task of drawing up new constituencies.

Gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of constituency boundaries to alter their political makeup and thereby ‘control’ election results, will remain a particularly important concern, especially considering that other forms of pre-election engineering are also very much in play.

The ECP must, therefore, take all stakeholders along and ensure complete transparency in its work. With the law breathing down its neck, it cannot let external factors delay the election exercise.

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2023

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