The miseries of summer have come early for Pakistanis living in towns where people have grown used to getting their electricity for free. As the government gets tough on electricity thieves, scores of towns in the impoverished provinces have been hit by power cuts weeks before soaring temperatures traditionally push demand far beyond supply.
“The electricity has just disappeared,” said Sheraz Khan, a resident of Bannu, one of the ramshackle cities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
With electricity off for almost the entire day, Khan is regretting his decision to invest in a car battery he hoped would store a little power to cover the periods of what is known as “load shedding,” in which electricity is completely shut off to avoid total system failure.
Across the province, people complain of sleepless nights in hot houses, food going off as refrigerators thaw and children unable to do homework in the dark.
The cause of their distress is the nation’s energy minister, who is implementing a tough policy that cuts off communities where most people do not pay their bills.
“If towns don’t pay, we shut them off,” said Pakistani Minister for Water and Power Khawaja Asif, the man responsible for fixing the nation’s failing power system.
“I am getting all these complaints from [other members of parliament] saying: ‘We haven’t had any electricity in my area for the last week,’” he said. “I sit down with them and say: ‘In these places 92 percent of people are not paying their bills.’”
In recent years, summer electricity riots have caused added strife in a country already battered by violence from Islamist militants, separatist groups and criminal gangs.
“In summer there will be problems,” the minister said. “The people will come out and burn our offices, but we will not succumb to this blackmail.”
On Wednesday, protesters in the frontier town of Tank burned tires, held a “mock funeral” for the chief minister of the province and threatened to boycott Pakistani government vaccination drives.
Yet forcing consumers to break the habit of not paying their bills — or simply stealing electricity by dropping metal hooks onto power lines — is critical to the government’s election pledge of fixing Pakistan’s power crisis.
With many private consumers, as well as some Pakistani federal ministries and provincial governments, refusing to pay their bills, vast amounts of debt builds up within the energy sector, forcing power companies to turn off their plants for long periods.
Power cuts lasting up to half the day have badly damaged the economy, particularly the country’s important textile industry, which has had to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers.
There is no issue more pressing for the governing faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, led by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The party won a landslide victory in May last year on the back of public anger over the electricity crisis. It hopes to go to the polls in 2018 with the boast that it ended the curse of blackouts.
Asif said consumers who pay their bills will start to see an improvement in supply in two years, as new coal-fired power plants are built and debt is squeezed out.