Punjab seems to have been pushed back into the dark ages — not just because of the darkness caused by the absence of electricity for up to 22 hours but also by the raging mobs that have unleashed barbarism across cities in Punjab. Enraged groups of protesters, demanding an end to unscheduled loadshedding, are running riot in towns and cities across the province, looting banks, shopping centres and even passengers of trains. The homes of two parliamentarians affiliated with the ruling alliance in the centre were and continue to be surrounded by vigilante mobs. There are reports of two protesters having been killed by the guards of a besieged legislator. And even as these lines go into print, the mayhem continues. Where and how does this madness stop? The surprising admission by Ahmed Mukhtar, the federal minister for water and power, that Punjab has suffered discrimination in power loadshedding vis-a-vis other provinces in the past, has substantiated the charges by the Punjab government of unfair treatment. However, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his government cannot escape blame for what is happening. To take the example of Faisalabad alone, the sheer magnitude of the visibly well-planned protest rally should have spurned his government into taking necessary measures to protect life and property. Thousands of people drove into the town centre on trucks and all available means of transport, along with a multitude of baton-brandishing angry citizens and opportunist criminals, while the police were nowhere to be seen. Looting and arson took place with impunity and the police only came into action when the power grid came under threat. This was governance at its worst. It would be criminal if the administration deliberately looked the other way to score political points against the ruling PPP during an election year. On Tuesday, Shahbaz Sharif addressed the Punjab Assembly and said he could never order the police to shoot at hapless people who had taken to the streets to voice their frustration and helplessness. Be that as it may, the CM also needs to remember that the people whose property and livelihoods are being affected by the protests are also equally helpless and in need of protection. The Punjab government cannot turn their back on them.
Minister Mukhtar has also said that compensatory measures will be taken to mitigate Punjab’s crippling power woes while the CM has announced Rs5 billion to resolve the province’s energy problems. The massive destruction of public and private property and the physical threat posed to parliamentarians for the first time seem to have forced the government into taking meaningful action on the energy front. It is indeed unfortunate that undisciplined public behavior is needed to force discipline in the ranks of a government that clearly suffers from confused priorities. The ongoing anarchy in Punjab must serve as an eye-opener for our policy makers. Their first and foremost priority must be to provide uninterrupted power to domestic consumers and industry — this is the bare minimum to get people off the streets and back into factories and homes. The energy crisis is not an impossible riddle. The solutions are staring us in the face; what is missing is the urgent prioritisation warranted by the circumstances.