According to the World Bank statistics, Pakistan is amongst the countries with high-level population without electricity. Only 74 percent of its population has access to power, which, sadly, remains static since last two decades. Globally, the country ranks 149 out of 196 countries, positioning even behind Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Almost one-hundred million, mostly in rural areas, still remain deprived of the basic necessity, which places Pakistan at 40th position among 88 countries for availability of electricity to rural areas. Successive governments remained generally insensitive to the appalling situation. Rural electrification plays a critical role in achieving rapid economic growth. Improvement in the quality of rural life and productive activities in agriculture, industry and commerce cannot be envisioned without the use of electricity. The difficulties that have plagued some efforts made in the past in this direction with the help of international donor agencies range from high costs and poor quality of supply, to disappointing load growth and low benefits, as the number of connections per kilometre of transmission line and load per connection tend to be small.
Rural electrification, which should have been the cornerstone of each government’s policy for the reason of poverty reduction, was never given the due importance. President Pervez Musharraf had promised electricity to all by 2007, with emphasis on rural electrification, but it remained a distant dream as plan lacked practical perspective, that is, the understanding of remote and far-flung areas and mountainous terrains that are not connected with national grid. The focus thus remained on extension of national grid and electrification of villages near the major cities. His government claimed that 1.8 million additional electric connections were provided by the year 2007, but, alas, those all were for on-grid supply.
As Pervez Musharraf ruled for long eight years, he could have brought changes to the life of rural populace. But, what one could expect from the military regime that had a professional civil engineer, without any basic qualification or experience or background whatsoever in planning or economics or in a related field, serving as the country’s key planner ie Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission. Unfortunately, there has not been a single Five-Year Plan at national level since 1998 (the 8th Five Year Plan) and ad-hoc-ism prevailed during later years that somehow still continues. The devastating results of short-term national plans—that too borrowed sometimes-- are well known. Successive political governments were no better either in formulating a long-term and realistic plan for rural electrification, and followed the policy to strengthening electricity subsector in cities that suited well their political agenda.
The grid electricity is expensive and there are challenges to construct transmission lines in the far-flung and rough-terrain locations covering a mix of farms, villages and small towns. Thus, there has to be a practical solution to providing the least-cost electricity not only for improving the quality of life of the residents in these remote areas but also for reasons of achieving cherished goals of developing tourism as well as cottage industries that could generate employment opportunities. The off-grid solutions are the most appropriate not only from locations point of view, but, more importantly, from electricity tariff considerations since the locals of these areas cannot afford it.
There are some 50,000 villages in the country with population ranging from 30 persons to 2,000 persons in a village, and most of these villages are not connected with the national grid. Therefore, decentralised electric power generation, or isolated generators, should play an increasing role in some areas. Mini coal-fired power plants of 5MW installed capacity could be installed in Balochistan where population density is 36 persons per square kilometre. Coastal areas of Balochistan and Sindh are most suited for installing wind power units. Small capacity solar units could be installed in Punjab.
Nonetheless, the focus of government remained on setting up medium-sized 50MW/100MW solar parks and 50MW wind-farms connected to national grid only. Mini and small hydropower plants provide electricity to rural areas in Gilgit-Baltistan with population density 21 per km2 and Azad Jammu and Kashmir with population density 300 per km2, but at a small scale, and most of the rural area still remain without electricity.
Pakistan has excellent production facilities to undertake manufacturing and supply of units for small coal-fired power plants, solar energy, wind power units, and hydropower plants, but the domestic engineering industry was never allowed to effectively participate in developing the power sector. Thus, over the years, the multi-dimensional character of the electricity crisis in Pakistan has assumed various political, societal and economic aspects and effects, threatening the very social fibre of the nation. Unfortunately, there seems to be no let-up in the prevalent situation, if not widening the gap further in the foreseeable future.
Pakistan is blessed with enormous water resources causing hydropower potential estimated to be of over 40,000MW. Currently, only 20 percent of the potential has been harnessed for hydropower generation. Many sites for hydropower projects have been identified in Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Construction of a series of small, mini and micro hydropower plants in these areas can provide a viable solution. An important factor causing the enervation of large-scale electrification programme is the absence of indigenous manufacturing of power plant machinery.
State Engineering Corporation (SEC) of the Ministry of Industries and Production had planned, as early as in 1984, to develop joint ventures with global companies for undertaking small hydropower plant projects on turn-key basis. Technology acquisition agreements were signed with the Swiss and British companies for the manufacturing of hydraulic turbines at Heavy Mechanical Complex (HMC) covering a wide range of sizes and types up to 25MW capacity. Under the first phase of implementing the agreement, HMC supplied and installed 250KVA and 500KVA hydropower units in Gilgit-Baltistan during 1985-86 for schemes in Khaibar (Hunza), Manthoka (Skardu), Chilas, Garbuchang and Shankargarh. These mini power plants are still operating providing affordable electricity to these villages for streetlights, housing, trade, and community activities.
Under co-manufacturing agreement, the local company also supplied four hydropower turbines of one-MW each along allied equipment for Kargah Hydropower project in Gilgit-Baltistan. As many as 31 schemes for construction of mini and small off-the-grid power plants of size ranging from 300KVA to 1,250KVA were also completed by HMC in subsequent years in Gilgit-Baltistan. These villages are located in all the ten districts of Gilgit, Hunza, Ghizer, Nagar, Diamer, Skardu, Shigar, Astore, Ganache and Kharmang. The plan for indigenous manufacturing however could not advance primarily due to lack of support of the government and focus of the management on manufacturing sugar mills and cement plants.
Electricity is a vital engine for development, not only in the urban industrial context, but also in rural areas. Rural electrification is a tool for national socioeconomic development and needs to be treated by the government like any other policy instrument. Implementation of integrated rural electrification programme on fast track could also help in effectively controlling migration from rural areas to large cities. At present about 63 percent of total population form rural population of the country. One of the fast urbanising countries, Pakistan had 17 percent urban population in 1951 that surged to 37 percent in 2017.
The writer is retired Chairman of the State Engineering Corporation