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Dawn Editorial 15 September 2020

Power at grassroots

SINDH Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah has added another twist to the never-ending local government saga in the country. Mr Shah has conditioned the holding of LG elections in the province on the delimitation of constituencies, which in turn is linked to a population headcount whose results enjoy consensus. These assertions would well-nigh be impossible to oppose, just as it is extremely difficult for many in the country to accept the results of the census of 2017. The issue of the census results should be debated and settled by the political parties and the ECP so that new demarcations can be carried out soon and the provincial government can hold elections within 120 days of the completion of the delimitation exercise. Without the fulfilment of these formalities, Sindh cannot be legally forced to hold LG polls even if these are considered essential to democratic growth and people’s empowerment. True, there are vested-interest groups all over Pakistan; these groups persist with their denial of this form of popular rule at the grassroots, and comprise, for the most part, a province’s ruling party that is loath to share any vestige of power with the lower tier of government.
Mr Shah has just managed to rid himself of a Karachi mayor that the Sindh dispensation couldn’t quite fire. He was fortunate that he did not have to face an antagonistic local-level government in those parts of the province where his party had won the general election. In Punjab, the unfortunate government felt that it had no option but to dissolve the LGs because the latter were dominated by its rivals. The sad aspect was that while so much muck flew to and fro, the winding up of the LGs generated very little by way of protest. It was a fait accompli. This is how it always happens in the country when it comes to the question of empowerment.
The provincial units are looking for ways and means to ensure that a further downward transfer would not hurt them. Those reluctant to share power could mean a class of politicians, or a party, or an individual or the family that the party is all about. Chief Minister Shah may be working to protect the interests of all of them since these elements appear to come together under the PPP’s umbrella at the moment. A more people-oriented political trajectory could perhaps have put the party on the road to acknowledging, without reservations, the need to hold LG polls, instead of trying to find loopholes. The process appears to be endless; how long will it take for those in power to work out a formula to share power with the local authorities? A deadline must be set. Local impatience may be growing amid a global trend to have smaller units for better management.



Overbilling consumers

THE debate on Pakistan’s power sector has mostly focused on the macro-fiscal issues plaguing it: electricity shortages, circular debt, and expensive power purchase agreements with private producers. These are often cited as factors responsible for making electricity unaffordable. Structural issues at the retail electricity distribution stage such as exorbitant transmission and distribution losses, power theft, unrecovered bills, corruption, and bad management seldom find space in the overall power-sector reform discourse. Nor is the chronic issue of overbilling by distribution companies (including the privatised K-Electric) to cover up their losses and inefficiencies, and inflate their revenues, considered a serious matter. The practice continues despite widespread complaints of inflated billing by consumers. Even repeated warnings by the power regulator Nepra have failed to convince distribution companies to end this practice. Past attempts to instal smart meters to resolve the issue of overbilling have been resisted by the distribution companies. A smart-meter project funded by the ADB in Lahore and Islamabad had to be discontinued two years ago, and has only recently been revived.
In its State of Industry Report 2019, Nepra has once again highlighted the issue of overbilling. Expressing its concerns over the pathetic performance of Discos, it says: “The overbilling issue … still haunts the consumers of electricity. Discos are still involved in systematic manipulation of the electricity units to manage their distribution losses which are factually higher.” It further points out the inability of the retail electricity sellers to cut their transmission and dispatch losses, which is one of the main reasons for overcharging consumers. Another reason for overbilling is the inability of the distribution firms to fully recover their bills. Instead of improving their recovery ratios, Discos have been allowed to resort to revenue-based blackouts in high-loss areas. This practice has, in turn, proved a disincentive for them to improve bill recoveries. Besides, it has stifled sales growth and increased electricity prices. It is believed that the practice of overbilling is in the knowledge of the management of the Discos. Macro-fiscal issues afflicting the power sector need to be tackled to prevent its total collapse. But these are more like the symptoms of a deep-rooted disease, which cannot be cured without treating the causes — retail-level structural problems that are eating their way through to the top of the power sector. No reforms will succeed without fixing distribution companies and ensuring competition at the retail level.



Communal peace

OVER the past several weeks, the situation vis-à-vis sectarian peace in Pakistan has been extremely fragile. Reportedly, due to some controversial remarks made from the pulpit during Muharram, and the resulting reaction from clerics, significant polarisation has been witnessed in society.
Perhaps the most worrying manifestation of this was witnessed last week in Karachi, when three rallies were taken out by religious groups in honour of the companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Particularly massive was Friday’s rally — organised by followers of the Deobandi school — and Saturday’s event, sponsored by Barelvi clerics. A relatively smaller event was held on Sunday by the Ahle Hadith school of thought.
While it is everyone’s democratic right to protest peacefully, the presence of banned hate groups in the rallies, as well as the raising of takfiri slogans in at least one rally, does not bode well for communal peace.
This newspaper has long argued that there can be no justification for hate speech from the pulpit targeting any sect, religion or their revered personalities. From the 1980s onwards, Pakistan has seen horrific bouts of sectarian violence, and the misuse of the microphone by clerics has played a central role in stirring up sectarian zeal.
In the current age, with news and rumours reaching countries within minutes thanks to social media, the situation is even more delicate. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the state and ulema to play their roles to prevent sectarian hatred from spreading. The government must ensure that pulpits are not misused to demonise any community and propagate sectarian views, and that action is taken against violators as per the law.
Clerics, on the other hand, have an equally important job; instead of working up their flock into a frenzy, ulema of all sects must cooperate to create an atmosphere of harmony. If controversial remarks are reported on social media or elsewhere, ulema and community leaders must work to defuse the situation. Pakistan cannot afford to be caught in the maelstrom of communal hatred.


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