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Dawn Editorial 11 February 2020

Additional burden for power consumers

IT seems that the government is preparing to abandon all effort at reform of the power sector.
The new power policy it has drawn up opens up all sorts of doors to recover money that the bureaucracy cannot access on its own from sources like provincial governments’ NFC award transfers and consumers.
Going by the draft of the National Electric Power Policy 2020, the “full cost recovery” formula will now allow the federal government to attach whatever surcharges it wants to power bills and pass through the cost of power-sector projects to paying consumers as well.
In short, the policy acknowledges that under this government’s leadership the power bureaucracy cannot be reformed and the costs of its ineptitude and inefficiency must be borne by provincial governments and paying consumers in the country.
If the draft policy is finalised in its present form, it would drain all incentive from the power bureaucracy to improve its performance; in fact, it would give the latter the authority to hand over the bills it could not collect to the federal government for direct deduction at source, provided the provincial dispensations agree to the amount being billed.
Likewise with transmission and distribution losses — if the bureaucracy cannot rectify matters, the cost can simply be passed through to the consumers. The government will also be allowed to convert the billing and recovery system of the power sector into a surrogate revenue-collecting machine by getting the authority to attach any surcharge it wants to power bills. In short, acceptance of the powers that the policy wants to create is tantamount to surrendering, with the bill handed over to those consumers who are law-abiding and pay their bills on time every month.
In the fancy parlance of the power sector, this is called ‘full cost recovery’. But the rest of the people can aptly refer to it as ‘legalised robbery’.
Since the current dispensation was elected to rule, it has presided over one of the sharpest hikes in power and gas tariffs that the country has seen in recent times, all the while blaming the increasing cost on the legacy of the previous administration.
Thus far, power consumers have had to bear the additional burden and accept the reasons they are given. But now, it seems the government wants to inscribe into law the authority to pass through such costs at whim.
It has more than Rs1tr worth of circular debt to bring down, something that requires improving governance and the performance of the power sector.
The present move then appears to be a shortcut, and passing the burden on to the consumers is the preferred route.
This is what happens when bureaucrats call the shots in matters of governance. It is the common citizen who is forced to pay for the ineptitude of the rulers.


Idlib confrontation

THOUGH the Syrian conflict is far from settled, the level of violence seen in earlier years — especially after the uprising against Bashar al-Assad sparked the civil war in 2011 — has come down in the last couple of years. The primary reason for this is that the Syrian Arab Army now has the upper hand, helped in no small measure by its external allies Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Meanwhile, many of the opposition’s foreign friends, such as the Americans, Europeans and the Gulf Arabs, seem to have lost interest in the Syrian imbroglio and left the rebels to mostly fend for themselves. However, a fresh conflict is brewing in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, pitting Mr Assad’s forces against the Turkish military and its Syrian rebel allies. There was an exchange of fire on Monday and several Turkish troops reportedly lost their lives, while similar clashes a few days earlier had resulted in casualties on both sides. Idlib borders Turkey, while Ankara has said it has taken offensive action to “stop migration and human tragedy”. As always, ordinary people have been the most affected in the clashes, with the UN saying nearly half a million have been displaced. Turkish President Recep Erdogan has said Syrian forces must vacate Idlib’s ‘de-escalation zone’ by the end of the month, or else “Turkey will be obliged to do so itself”.
Up till now, Syria had been a proxy battlefield between the US-led bloc and what has been termed the ‘axis of resistance’, basically bringing together Iran and its allies. However, with the growing hostilities between Turkey and Syria, the threat of this conflict becoming a regional conflagration has increased manifold. Ankara had already sent troops into Syria last October to battle semi-autonomous Syrian Kurds, whom the Turks felt were providing sanctuary to the PKK. However, the situation in Idlib is very different as the militaries of two sovereign states are trading fire. While Ankara’s relationship with Damascus has been strained ever since the start of the Syrian conflict, it has retained cordial ties with Russia and Iran — Mr Assad’s primary foreign backers. In fact, the Astana and Sochi processes have involved all these players to try and peacefully settle the Syrian question. These channels of communication need to be reactivated to prevent the situation in Idlib from spiralling into something bigger. A new front in the Syrian war will only benefit militant actors, and increase the people’s miseries.


Religious harmony

IN a heart-warming example of tolerance and interfaith harmony, a 200-year-old temple in Balochistan has been returned to the local Hindu community. Located in Zhob, the temple had been used as a government school for the last 30 years. More significant, however, is the fact that the keys of the historic temple that is carved out from a mountain were handed over to the leader of the local Hindu panchayat by the khatib of Zhob’s central mosque, Maulana Allah Dad Kakar of the JUI-F. According to local authorities, the maulana had fully supported the decision of returning the temple to the Hindu community that had been praying in a dilapidated, dangerous mud structure. On the occasion, the deputy commissioner of the area also apologised to the local Hindu community for the 70-year delay in returning their place of worship to them. Though a majority of the Hindu population living in Zhob migrated to India in 1947, around 50 families still live in the area.
The local authorities in Zhob deserve praise for this commendable effort. Their actions — along with the symbolic apology — will help restore the lost sense of security among minority communities residing not just in the area but also in other parts of the country. But while the return of the temple is a positive move, the local authorities must now fulfil their promise of restoring the place of worship to its original state for the benefit of the worshippers. Here the role of Maulana Kakar is significant. Being a religious and political leader, his enthusiastic support for protecting the constitutional — and also religious — rights of a minority community is very reassuring. Not only has he set an example for other religious and political leaders of the country, his actions send the message that those fanning and patronising acts of intolerance and violence towards minority communities, citing religious ‘reasons’ are doing their faith a great disservice. Religious leaders across the country would do well to understand the importance of this message.


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