Failure to pay for electricity leaves Pakistani towns in the dark

Power cuts have hit impoverished areas of Pakistan, bringing threat of riots in the summer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:37am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:37am

The miseries of summer have come early for Pakistanis living in towns where people have grown used to getting free electricity.

As the government gets tough on electricity thieves, scores of towns in the impoverished provinces have been hit by power cuts weeks before soaring temperatures traditionally push demand far beyond supply.

"The electricity has disappeared," said Sheraz Khan, of Bannu, a ramshackle city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

With power off for almost the entire day, Khan is regretting his decision to invest in a car battery he hoped would store a little power to cover the periods of what is known as "load shedding", in which electricity is shut off to avoid total system failure.

Across the province, people complain of sleepless nights, food going off as refrigerators thaw and children unable to do homework in the dark.

The cause of their distress is Pakistan's energy minister, who is implementing a tough policy that cuts off communities where most people do not pay their bills.

"If towns don't pay, we shut them off," said Khawaja Asif, the man responsible for fixing Pakistan's failing power system.

"I am getting all these complaints from [other members of parliament] saying, 'We haven't had any electricity in my area for the last week,'" he said.

"I sit down with them and say, 'In these places 92 per cent of people are not paying their bills.'"

In recent years, summer electricity riots have caused added strife in the country. "In summer there will be problems," predicts the minister. "The people will come out and burn our offices, but we will not succumb to this blackmail." There have already been protests, with residents across KP blocking roads.

On Wednesday, protesters in the frontier town of Tank burnt tyres, held a "mock funeral" for the chief minister of KP and threatened to boycott government vaccination drives.

But forcing consumers to break the habit of not paying their bills - or simply stealing electricity by dropping metal hooks on to power lines - is critical to the government's election pledge of fixing Pakistan's power crisis.

With many private consumers, as well as some federal ministries and provincial governments, refusing to pay their bills, vast amounts of debt builds up within the energy sector, forcing power companies to turn off their plants for long periods.

Power cuts lasting half the day have damaged the economy, particularly the country's textile industry, which has laid off hundreds of thousands of workers.

There is no issue more pressing for the governing faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), led by prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

The party won a landslide victory last May on the back of public anger over the electricity crisis. It hopes to go to the polls in 2018 with the boast that it ended the curse of blackouts. Asif said consumers who pay their bills will start to see an improvement in supply in two years, as new coal-fired power plants are built and debt is squeezed out.

The PML-N's core voters will not be as affected as those in KP. Most of the party's support comes from Punjab, a rich and populous province where power distribution companies are generally successful at recovering the money owed to them.

But in many parts of KP, which is largely represented by politicians from rival parties, recovery rates are extremely low.