Dawn Editorial 4 October 2019

Power tariff hike

THIS government has now presided over three separate hikes in power tariffs, aside from the regular fuel adjustment surcharges that are revised and updated as per routine. The latest such hike came on Wednesday, when in one go the government notified a 33 paisa per unit increase, on top of the 53 paisa per unit hike that the regulator had already approved. The additional increase, according to the finance ministry, was to help bear the cost of the subsidy that the so-called ‘lifeline consumers’ (those who consume less than 300 units per month) receive. In what appears to be a sleight-of-hand move, the government has passed on the cost of that subsidy to consumers, thereby freeing up some fiscal space for itself, and at the same time, turning the country’s power sector and its billing and recovery system into even more of a surrogate revenue-collection machine.
These kinds of gimmicks need to be avoided at all cost; whenever the government resorts to them, it needs to be called out on it. Under pressure to keep expenditures down while lifting revenues, the government is behaving like its predecessors as it begins to lean on power tariffs and fuel prices to make some easy billions for itself. When past governments resorted to such practices, they were criticised, not least by Imran Khan himself. But now, the present government itself has retained the benefit of falling oil prices in the global market, rather than passing it on to the consumers who are already weighed down by inflation. Not content with that, it is now passing on the cost of some of the subsidies — and of its own inability to improve system efficiency — directly to the consumers.
Meanwhile, the public is still waiting to learn what the government’s big ideas for power sector reform are. We know privatisation will play a role, but there is nothing yet on how the government intends to improve sector governance, or whether pricing reform is even a part of its vision. There is even less knowledge of what is being done to improve transparency in the power sector. These are mutually reinforcing priorities that are needed to put the power sector on the path of self-sustaining growth. Without pricing reform, investment will always be pegged to guaranteed returns. Without improvement in sector governance, there will always be circular debt, higher or lower in some periods than in others but always present. Without transparency, there will be no meaningful improvement in governance. The absence of any vision for power-sector reform makes tariff hikes even more difficult to bear. At this rate, we will be endlessly raising tariffs to pay for system inefficiency, as well as bearing the associated costs, such as subsidising lifeline consumers; thus there will be no real gain. This is not the way to run things, especially in the power sector.


Neglected province

BALOCHISTAN seems to have faded from the national narrative; only when it is the theatre of a terrorist attack does it surface, that too very briefly. The HRCP’s report from its fact-finding mission to the province — aptly titled Balochistan: Neglected Still — lays bare the deepening alienation among its people and their disillusionment with the state. At the top of the list of grievances is the continuing practice of enforced abductions, which has reportedly expanded to include women victims from Awaran and Dera Bugti, a development bound to intensify the sense of humiliation and helplessness among the local population. The observations in the document, gleaned from interviews on the ground with representatives of political parties as well as civil society activists, including lawyers, members of labour unions and academia, etc, paint a picture of extreme repression and despondency. The right to security of person and rights to due process, freedom of speech, information, etc — all have evidently been sacrificed in the fight against separatist elements.
The fruits of the 18th Amendment have bypassed Balochistan; neither do the results of last year’s election have legitimacy in the eyes of a vast swathe of its population. There will certainly be those who will argue that the state’s security-centric policies are precisely what have cooled the ongoing insurgency, thereby clearing a major obstacle to CPEC-related projects in the province. Evidence of meddling by foreign intelligence agencies has been proven beyond doubt; at the same time, one must also concede that such sinister endeavours can only take root in existing local grievances that have found no redress. CPEC is touted ad nauseam as being a ‘game changer’ for locals. However, the real game changer would be for the Baloch to be able to exercise their right to self-governance within the constitutional framework and exert independent control over their vast natural resources. This would be the surest way to erode any lingering support for the insurgency and deny the separatists a convenient narrative with which to attract disaffected Baloch youth. As though these problems were not grave enough, the latest HRCP report also highlights the growing resentment among the province’s Pakhtun population at what they perceive to be the state’s strong-arm tactics against PTM activists in Balochistan. This is a new element in this cauldron of competing agendas and conflicting interests. The state must dispassionately review its policies and craft a new people-centric approach that brings the nation together.


Sri Lankan series

THE return of international limited-overs cricket to Pakistan finally became a reality with the arrival of the Sri Lankan cricket team last week and the subsequent ODI series that has been won 2-0 by the hosts.
The three-match ODI series in Karachi will now be followed by an equal number of T20 games in Lahore, thus making this 13-day tour by the Islanders the longest by a front-ranking cricket team to Pakistan since March 2009 when a harrowing terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team’s bus suspended international cricket activity at home.
Read: Sri Lanka Cricket says received terror attack warning ahead of Pakistan tour
Though 10 leading Sri Lankan players opted out of the tour citing security reasons, and heavy rain threatened to scuttle the matches, the series has still given hope to fans that international cricket is returning to Pakistan.
There have been signs of this happening.
The recent visit by Cricket Australia’s CEO Kevin Roberts and its security head Sean Carroll as well as the forthcoming trip of deputy ICC chairman Imran Khwaja to witness the T20s in Lahore next week is good news.
Credit for this ought to be given to the PCB that has worked hard to convince the ICC and member cricket boards to consider Pakistan as a safe country for the game. However, more than the PCB or the ICC, Pakistani fans perhaps owe a debt of gratitude to the Sri Lankans themselves for agreeing to undertake this landmark tour, especially in view of what they experienced in 2009.
Having said that, the authorities should have ensured that crowds filled the National Stadium.
Unfortunately, heavy security, needless road blocks and steep ticket prices discouraged many fans who watched the matches on their television screens and mobile sets.
Analysts will vouch for the fact that in past decades, cricket was a catalyst for uniting a nation split along multiple ethnic, religious and ideological fault lines.


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