Friday June 21, 2024

Right to power

By Editorial Board
September 06, 2023

Over the past decade, electricity bills have been an ever-growing pain for the people of this country. The bills only get bigger while our capacity to pay for them keeps shrinking due to widespread inflation and a largely stagnant economic climate. Never has this pain been felt more acutely than now, with power bills rising to hitherto unheard-of levels, leading to protests throughout the country as people wonder how they are supposed to pay these bills amidst unrelenting inflation. Where are people supposed to come up with money that many of them do not have? Pakistanis do not exactly enjoy the world’s highest standards of living, but the hike in power bills is making even these meagre standards seem luxurious. As a result, for most Pakistanis, paying these bills might require cutting back on other necessities such as healthcare and their children’s education.

The unprecedented increases are tied to the IMF deal in July, which brought us $3 billion in much-needed financial assistance but at the cost of the phasing out of energy and fuel subsidies and an increase in taxes, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). However, HRW also says that our government’s failure to reform Pakistan’s energy sector has exacerbated the power bills crisis. Amidst the furore over the bills, HRW has underscored its belief that “the right to an adequate standard of living includes everyone’s right, without discrimination, to sufficient, reliable, safe, clean, accessible, and affordable electricity”. In this vein, HRW has called for the IMF and the Pakistani government to assess the impact of removing fossil fuel subsidies and ensure that they mitigate the impact of energy price increases by introducing a universal social protection system for those groups at greater risk of income insecurity, including children, the elderly and those with disabilities.

That this hike in power bills has been pushed through without, seemingly, much consideration as to the impact they would have on people’s rights and standards of living is an indictment of the way economic bailouts and financial relief programmes are structured and implemented in the developing world. This consideration appears to only have become a major concern after protests erupted, with the government scrambling to seek a concession from the IMF on electricity costs last week. That relief is not likely to come at all, though. We agree with HRW on the need to ensure that people’s right to electricity is acknowledged as part of their right to live a life of dignity. Standard of living and human rights should not be the price for economic relief. Fixing the economy by trampling on the people is no real fix. This is not to say that fuel subsidies are necessarily a good thing. Indeed, HRW highlights that these subsidies tend to be an economic burden for governments and foster dependency on fossil fuels when countries, especially those acutely vulnerable to climate change like Pakistan, need to be moving away from them. However, the impact of doing so on millions of ordinary people needs to be accounted for if this is to be done sustainably, with adequate protections in place for those most impacted by rising energy costs.