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Wednesday December 01, 2021

After the ‘Blackout’?

January 11, 2021

The weekend blackout across Pakistan’s electricity grid must lead to a badly-needed reality check over the country’s direction, notably the future of its moribund economy.

This is essential given how Prime Minister Imran Khan has recently shown a knack for selectively playing up numbers to claim the beginning of an economic recovery. In sharp contrast, any independent assessment must note the continuing gaps on the economic front that have hit Pakistan’s ordinary households the hardest in years.

The electricity blackout must prompt immediate questions over the state of governance across a variety of fronts including segments of country’s economy. Though the challenge of governance has widened and deepened under successive regimes, the Imran-led government stepped up in 2018 with promises to lead Pakistan towards a long overdue ‘tabdeeli’ or change. But just over two years later, Pakistan remains far from turning the corner.

It’s much too early to conclude exactly what triggered the weekend blackout. But it’s clear that the incident was unprecedented and smacked of major trouble on one or more fronts. That Pakistan’s crisis of governance continues to widen and deepen is obviously no brainer. Ordinary consumers going about in their daily lives frequently experience the downside of the country’s institutional collapse that has made life increasingly hard for the mainstream. Frequent accounts on the media of uncontrolled price hike of food commodities, represents blatant evidence of this failure. Meanwhile, prime minister’s excitement on matters like an improvement in country’s current account deficit must be taken with a pinch of salt. In a year when Pakistan’s economic engine has ground close to a halt, selective positive elements at the macro level in themselves are hardly evidence of upcoming prosperity.

Meanwhile, the power sector on its own has been plagued by multiple challenges for years. The dreadful ‘kunda’ or hook connections still remain a fact of life in parts of Pakistan, bearing testimony to the continued collusion between unscrupulous officials and consumers to steal electricity from the national grid.

On other related fronts, elements of inefficiency in the power transmission systems are far too many to be easily ignored.

Elsewhere across the public sector, though the PTI government has recently announced its intent to overhaul PIA and the Karachi Steel Mills, there are plenty of other public sector companies that continue to bleed badly. And the jury is still out on the future of government-backed reforms in PIA or the steel mills, given how previous efforts of this kind ended in failure.

As for the future of Pakistan’s economy, one of the biggest challenges remains that of reviving growth. In a country where almost half the population is known to depend directly or indirectly on agriculture, the failure to tackle the multiple challenges on this front remains just mind- boggling.

Government after government has paid no more than lip- service to robustly supporting Pakistan’s farmers. For the government that witnessed a backlash just last year over sharply growing prices of sugar and wheat, this must be an obvious priority. Finally, caught in the midst of an economic slowdown, the government’s target for tax collection remains in danger of falling short repeatedly.

Going forward, Prime Minister Imran Khan has the choice to either celebrate early signs of selective improvement on one front or another, or embrace a reality check.

The weekend blackout has only highlighted the frailty of Pakistan’s ruling order – a reminder once again that the premier can simply not afford to be complacent.