The Karachi tragedy

  • It is a bit unfortunate that the tragedy in Karachi has given the provincial and central government as well as different institutions including K-electric an opportunity to start a blame-game against each other. Sindh Information Minister has refused to accept any responsibility whosoever for over 1,100 deaths in Karachi and has passed on the entire responsibility on to Federal Government, which had privatized K-electric (formerly KESC) and on K-electric which failed to provide uninterrupted power supply to Karachi residents. However, as a party ruling Sindh province for the last seven years, Peoples Party should have woken up earlier than now and kept K-electric’s performance under constant scrutiny, and in case it was unsatisfactory, pressured Federal Government to warn it. Fortunately, like in all calamities, residents of Karachi came out in large numbers and provided lot of help on voluntary basis which should have been done by the provincial government. At least, the provincial government could have arranged digging of communal graves and providing these at official cost, if not free of charge, to save the people from running from graveyard to the other and catching the heat wave in the process, apart from having to pay up to ten times of the official cost of the grave. Even if a bit delayed, such an initiative was taken by KMC, which must be appreciated.

    And there was the Federal Information Minister Senator Pervaiz Rashid who categorically declared that it was heat wave and not load-shedding which killed over 1,100 people in Karachi. While it is true that it was the heat wave which gave people heat stroke, excessive load-shedding and long power breakdowns impeded the remedial measures which could have healed people out of the ailment. So, K-electric is not entirely blame-less and shares a fair degree of responsibility for the tragedy.

    The Federal government claims that its contract with K-electric for the supply of 650 mw expired towards the end of January this year but it is still supplying this load to K-electric. And this clearly means that at the time of signing the contract with the government in 2005, K-electric (formerly KESC) must have given an undertaking that by the time of contract expiry, it would increase its generating capacity sufficiently in order to meet the full requirement of its consumers, without needing the additional 650 mw from the National grid. And that makes it quite clear that the K-electric has failed to abide by the terms of the agreement.

    That K-electric’s has indeed been successful in turning a big loss-making company into a profitable one, and has recently even paid dividends to its shareholders, which is an achievement indeed. But that is a service only to its owners though as a public-service company, it has a duty to serve all, or nearly all of its consumers, in which it has failed. When K-electric proudly announces that it has made sixty percent of its consumers load-shedding-free, it admits that it has failed in discharging its duty to forty percent of its consumers, and that is a lot. After all, K-electric is not a democratic government which could keep functioning happily with a simple majority of satisfied customers. K-electric has invested over $ 1 billion in enhancing electricity generation and improving the systems. Perhaps it should have invested much more.

    K-electric claims that load-shedding is being done only in Kunda-infested localities with poor recovery rate, and the length of daily load-shedding period is proportionate to the extent of the disease. Moreover, it claims that excessive, unrecorded load due to Kundas sometimes makes the system trip, which also disrupts electricity supply as it takes times to rectify the fault. However, with Kunda-proofing technology available, and already installed by K-electric in many localities, this argument does not carry much weight. Also, the people suffering the misfortune of living near Kunda-invested localities are lumped with non-payers and subjected to severe loadshedding, despite paying their bills regularly. Obviously, this is a great injustice to them because they are not responsible for the Kunda connections and have no powers to remove them.

    Spotting illegal Kunda connections is not as difficult as sighting the new moon on a cloudy day: they are there for every one to see, including K-electric which only has responsibility and authority to remove them.

    There are also some officially-authorized Kunda connections which are normally granted at the time of commencement of the construction of a new house. These are usually for a small, fixed monthly sum because of low expected electricity consumption during the construction phase. However, in some cases, these are allowed to continue indefinitely, even after the house has been fully built and occupied, with electricity consumption substantially increased. These fixed-sum monthly bills obviously increase electricity consumption because there simply is no incentive to economize on consumption. The same is true also in case of illegall Kunda connections.

    As for the problems faced by K-electric, one is non-payment of dues by government departments. And in case K-electric disconnect supply of a department like Water Board, disruption of water supply creates a big pressure on K-electric to restore the electricity supply on payment of a small part of the overdue amount, with a promise to pay up the rest soon which promise normally remains unfulfilled. There is just no excuse for government departments not to pay electricity bills because they do or should have necessary budgetary allocations for this purpose. With all the extravagance that goes on in government circles, there simply is no excuse for not paying for the services they receive.

    Also, in case of localities which have enjoyed for years, free of charge electricity supply through illegal Kunda connections, disconnecting supplies all of a sudden could create law and order problems because of thousands of affected people rising in protest which could at times turn nasty. In such cases, the K-electric has a policy to develop an understanding with the representatives of the community before installing Kunda-proof transmission lines and low cost electricity meters. Perhaps K-electric needs to greatly speed up its work in this field.

    To be fair, one has to admit that K-electric does face many problems not all of which are of its own making. Still, these problems can not be allowed to remain unresolved indefinitely. And that means K-electric has to concentrate on problem-solving with much more determination than it has displayed so far.

    The timing of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s announcement not to reverse privatization of K-electric is unfortunate and same is the case with Pervaiz Rashid’s announcement giving a clean chit to K-electric. At a time when an inquiry has been ordered to review K-electric’s working, such announcements have the effect of unduly influencing the committee members. This is so because in our country, normally the experts dare not look critically at things and report facts but prefer to take the ‘prudent and safe’ course by stating what they think their superiors want them to say. Moreover, such statements also have the effect of weakening the government’s bargaining position while negotiating further improvements in the system with the K-electric.

    What is most important is that we should all learn from this tragedy. Meteorological department has stated that due to climatic change, events like heat waves could occur more frequently, and in the unfortunate event of this happening again, we should not get caught totally unprepared like we did this time.