The sewing machines in Amanat Ali’s tailoring shop in Lahore, Pakistan, sit idle.
It’s not that there’s a lack of demand for the brightly-coloured clothes he stitches, but frequent power outage takes a toll on his business. Most businesses and households across the country go without electricity for at least 12 hours every day, making life extremely difficult.
“The power goes off for one hour and then comes back for an hour,” Ali explains. “So it is every other hour that we are without power. And on Sundays it goes for three hours at a stretch,” he adds.
Ali must rely on a generator to keep things running, but at a cost of roughly $125 a month. He cannot afford to run it as regularly as he would need to keep his business ticking over. The cost would, he says, be much greater if he kept the air conditioner running. But, he explains: “For me that is not an option; it is an expense that I cannot bear.”
The cost of running a generator leaves little with which to support his family of eight. And the power outages affect his business in other ways. With no air conditioner in the shop, customers find the heat unbearable. And his staff must often work longer hours in an attempt to make up for the reduced productivity during power outages.
“When I have to ask my six to seven workers to stay back to finish the customer orders that we have, then I have to order food for them and keep the generator and electricity going for longer.”
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It is, Ali says, “a Catch-22 situation”.
“I can neither say no to the customers, nor can I always deliver. I don’t see a way out of it. We can barely make ends meet. We can’t run the sewing machines without electricity and in the evening, without lights, we cannot even cut the fabric because it is difficult to see.”
Despite these hardships, Ali knows he is one of the luckier ones. In his home village in Narowal, a district in Pakistan’s Punjab province, where his brother has a tailoring shop, the situation is much worse. In rural areas, the power outages can last for 16 to 20 hours a day.
“They have no electricity from morning until late at night,” Ali explains. “They have no idea when the supply [of electricity] will be resumed or if it will be resumed.”
This uncertainty makes it impossible to plan a working day. And, over the past couple of years, the situation has deteriorated dramatically with the shortfall increasing from 4,600 megawatts to more than 7,000 megawatts – nearly 40 per cent of national demand – a day.
Back in 2010, power outages did take place and could last for up to four hours at a time – but they were monthly occurrences with advanced notice, enabling people to plan their lives around them. Now, small business owners report a 50 per cent reduction in revenue over the past two years.
But, Ali explains, complaining is not really an option. “Here you cannot even say much. If anyone speaks [out against the authorities] then they, together with their families, run the risk of being penalised… So we can’t afford to openly criticise anyone.”
In Pakistan, two vertically integrated public sector utilities generate, transmit, distribute and supply electricity. The Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) supplies electricity to all of Pakistan except Karachi, while the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC) supplies the city of Karachi and its surrounding areas. There are also about 20 independent power producers.
The country’s power crisis may have just reached boiling point, but the factors contributing to it have been brewing for the past two decades. One of the key causes is unpaid electricity bills: provincial and federal governments often fail to pay their dues despite being the biggest consumers.
Then there is the matter of electricity theft, in which some residential and commercial consumers bribe staff at the power companies in order to receive an unlimited supply. This, in turn, affects the supply to other households and businesses that must effectively pay the bill for those who do not.
Nazeer Ahmad runs a computer and mobile sales and service centre in one of Lahore’s busiest shopping arcades. He must rely on an Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) unit to power the bulbs and fans in his shop. But that only lasts for a maximum of 90 minutes, after which the batteries must be recharged – for which electricity is required.
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“It is very frustrating,” he says. “We often cannot provide the service in a timely manner because of the lack of electricity and [that] frustrates our customers – we end up losing customers and revenue.”
Although a UPS is cheaper than a generator, with a one-off purchase cost of around $300, there are associated maintenance costs and those have been increasing. Batteries must be changed every 18 months. A few months ago each battery cost around $100, and now that has risen to $125.
On top of that, Ahmad must still pay a hefty electricity bill. “We have to foot a monthly bill for electricity – the supply of which is only there for half of our business hours. Just last month it was $160.” Ahmad’s small business can only survive because of the orders it receives from larger companies. Without these, he says, “we would have been forced to pack up”.
The wealth divide
Many Pakistani businesses are responding to the country’s power crisis by turning to alternative energy sources.
Mahmood Ahmad of Grease Pakistan, one of Pakistan’s main suppliers of generators, says demand for generators running on diesel, petrol and gas has increased in recent years.
“Over the last couple of years, it isn’t that we have started to sell or rent out more generators,” he explains, “but we have definitely seen the capacity [of the generators demanded] being doubled. So if 500 generators of one kilowatt were being used, now that requirement has jumped to 500 generators of two kilowatts.”
The price of a generator starts from $135 and the cost of high-end models can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. And those prices are rising. “This year, we have seen an increase in prices,” Ahmad says. “We import these generators, so the prices are mainly affected by the fact that the rupee has been losing its value against the dollar. Going by the demand and supply rule, now that the demand is higher the prices should have gone down. The demand has increased by at least 10 per cent in 2012, but that hasn’t helped reduce the price.”
But purchasing a generator or a UPS is not an option for most Pakistani households, which means that the power outages are further widening the country’s already stark wealth divide. Those who can afford it get some respite, while those who cannot must endure.
And that, according to Fatima Batool, a working mother of two, has “far-reaching sociological and psychological impacts on Pakistani society” – affecting where you can go and what you can do, whether that be a social engagement or an important hospital appointment.
Little light at the end of the tunnel
Amna Chaudhry, a young entrepreneur eager to see an Arab Spring-style peaceful revolution to change Pakistan’s status quo, says she fears that young Pakistanis will remember their country “as a place where there is no light and no convenience”.
“When electricity goes [in] areas that are old and rundown, the tube well stops pumping the water and we are left with dirty dishes in our kitchen sinks because they can’t be washed until the water supply resumes,” Chaudhry says, adding that when she is called for job interviews, she has to go to a relative’s or a friend’s house to shower.
For a nation facing multiple challenges, the absence of electricity is just another hardship. But as politicians from both the government and the opposition point the finger of blame at each other, Pakistanis have little faith in the political establishment to improve their plight.
And while Raja Pervez Ashraf, the country’s newly elected prime minister, has promised to end the power crisis, few expect the man who was the country’s minister for water and power from 2008 to 2011 to deliver now what he failed to deliver then.