Pakistan Blackouts Power Frustration At Government

Originally published on August 8, 2012 2:39 pm

In India last week, surprise grid failures plunged more than half the country into darkness. But power outages in neighboring Pakistan have been intentional — the result of summertime energy rationing.

Despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid, Pakistan has been unable to keep the lights on. Now the situation is getting worse, with riots erupting over factories forced offline.

Only the mosque and a handful of shops in this commercial district in Rawalpindi, a large, bustling city alongside the capital, Islamabad, have power. Generators rumble outside the few businesses that can afford them.

Muhammed Iqbal, a tailor, sits sweating in his darkened shop. He's got hundreds of orders for new clothes due by the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but power outages mean he can only run the sewing machines a few hours a day.

"Earlier, the customers would come to us, and say, 'I want this dress to be ready in the evening.' But now, even in four days, we are not sure whether a dress would be prepared even in four days, because there is much load-shedding," Iqbal says in Urdu.

Pakistan's government sheds customers from the overloaded power grid — causing rolling blackouts. Most people have only a few hours of electricity a day, and even that's dwindling. Iqbal had to lay off 30 of his 60 workers.

Up a rickety metal ladder, in a sweltering windowless chamber, the remaining workers cut fabric by hand. A trainee who goes by the single name Shehzad uses an old-fashioned manual sewing machine made of wood and iron.

Shehzad halts the machine and cries out — in English — and then lapses into his mother tongue, Urdu.

"I have no money," he says. "We do not have electricity at home. When we go there we can't sleep properly, and when we come here, we can't work properly because there is load-shedding. And financially we are very disturbed, very much disturbed."

Overwhelming Power Demand

Pakistan's government says it can't afford to keep up with increasing electricity demand, as more and more people crowd into urban centers. But with nationwide rioting over blackouts, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has promised to buy more fuel for power plants.

Opposition leaders accuse the government of spending too much on electricity subsidies — keeping prices artificially low for political gain.

Sen. Haji Mohammad Adeel leads the Awami National Party, which has threatened to pull out of the governing coalition over the blackouts.

"The minister of electricity failed badly. So I'm with the poor people of Pakistan, who due to closure of factories they are jobless, and they're facing electricity shortages," Adeel says. "Even in my house. After every one hour, there's no electricity."

As if on cue, the lights went out in his office as he spoke.

Pakistan's electricity comes mostly from a mix of thermal and hydroelectric plants. Problems have more to do with mismanagement than scarcity of resources, says local political columnist Haris Khaliq. Take natural gas, for example.

"We are self-sufficient in natural gas, but natural gas was not used to produce electricity," he says. "It was used to bake bread in the villages of Punjab, for instance. It's not efficient."

Waiting On Better Services

With 4 1/2 years in power, this government is on track to become the longest-serving civilian government in Pakistani history. But discontent over blackouts has some workers agitating for a return to military rule.

Khaliq says it's wrong to blame democracy.

"If you see that the incumbent government has not delivered, then vote them out and get another government," he says. "You know, if the British government is not performing, nobody would say, 'Why doesn't the army take over' in the U.K.? I know that there is a history, but I think we should be very careful."

Back at his suit shop, tailor Iqbal says he'd hoped democracy would bring better services like electricity.

"We selected these people, and now this is the situation," he says. "So I don't know what type of punishment we're going through."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

While India's electrical outages were unexpected, power outages in neighboring Pakistan have been intentional - the result of summertime energy-rationing. This happens year after year. Despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid, Pakistan has been unable to keep the lights on. And now the situation is getting worse, with riots erupting over factories that were forced offline. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Only the mosque and a handful of shops in this commercial district have power. Generators rumble outside the few businesses that can afford them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE)

FRAYER: Muhammed Iqbal, a tailor, sits sweating in his darkened shop. He's got hundreds of orders for new clothes due by the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But power outages mean he can only run the sewing machines a few hours a day.

MUHAMMED IQBAL: (Through Translator) Earlier, the customers would come to us and say that, like I want this dress to be ready in the evening. But now, even four days, we are not sure whether a dress would be prepared even in four days because there is much load shedding.

FRAYER: Pakistan's government sheds customers from the overloaded power grid causing rolling blackouts. Most people have only a few hours of electricity a day here, and even that's dwindling. Iqbal had to lay off 30 of his 60 workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

FRAYER: Up a rickety metal ladder, in a sweltering windowless chamber, the remaining workers cut fabric by hand. A trainee who goes by the single name Shehzad uses an old-fashioned manual sewing machine made of wood and iron.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

FRAYER: He halts the machine, and cries out in English and then lapses into his mother tongue, Urdu.

SHEHZAD: I have no money. (Through Translator) We do not have electricity at home. When we go there we can't sleep properly. And when we come here we can't work here properly because there is much load-shedding. And financially we are very disturbed, very much disturbed.

FRAYER: Pakistan's government says it can't afford to keep up with increasing electricity demand, as more and more people crowd into urban centers. But with nationwide rioting over blackouts, the prime minister has promised to buy more fuel for power plants. Opposition leaders accuse the government of spending too much on electricity subsidies, keeping prices artificially low for political gain.

Senator Haji Mohammad Adeel leads the Awami National Party, which has threatened to pull out of the governing coalition, over the blackouts.

SENATOR HAJI MOHAMMAD ADEEL: The Minister of Electricity failed badly. So I'm with the poor people of Pakistan, who, due to closure of the factories, they are jobless and they're facing electricity shortages. Even in my house, after every one hour, there's no electricity.

FRAYER: As if on cue, the lights went out in his office, as we spoke.

Pakistan's electricity comes mostly from a mix of thermal and hydro-electric plants. Problems have more to do with mismanagement, than scarcity of resources, says local political columnist Haris Khaliq. Take natural gas, for example.

HARIS KHALIQ: We are self-sufficient in natural gas, but natural gas was not used to produce electricity. It was used to bake breads in the villages of Punjab, for instance. It's not efficient.

FRAYER: With four-and-a-half years in power, this government is on track to become the longest-serving civilian government in Pakistani history. But discontent over blackouts has some workers agitating for a return to military rule.

Political commentator Haris Khaliq says it's wrong to blame democracy though.

KHALIQ: If you see that the incumbent government has not delivered, you know, vote them out and get another government. You know, if the British government is not performing, nobody would say that why doesn't the army take over in the UK? So why is that raised in Pakistan? I know that there is a history, but I think we should be very careful.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

FRAYER: Back at his suit shop, tailor Muhammed Iqbal says he'd hoped democracy would bring better services, like electricity.

IQBAL: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: We selected these people and now this is the situation, he says. So I don't know what type of punishment we're going through.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.