The presently beleaguered Power Sector is being assailed by its generalist governors. Conveniently forgetting that they are the problem, they are offering solutions by a dozen now – in all probability, retrieved from the dustbins of the yore.
Unfortunately, the dustbins have seen these solutions being consigned to the dark and dreary cellars once too many.
Earlier in 1984, when the seeds of IPPs (independent power producers), etc., were initially sown the government required WAPDA to implement a campaign to arrest illegal abstraction of energy (power) in the country.
This campaign quickly petered-off with the things reverting to the original position. Thereafter, in 1997, the then government decided to correct things by outright handing over of Wapda’s management to the Pakistan Army.
The mission was jump-started by inducting a plethora of red tabs, hundreds of officers and 42,000 troops in all. So much was the fright, that within days, the national electricity demand fell by 1000MW – a hefty fall by 16% of the total generation then.
Both losses and recovery improved, but unfortunately retracted once again to the old levels in the next 2-3 years’ time. The one-star generals holding the reins as DISCO heads too were gone by early 2004. As a consequence of and collateral damage, a large number of the cream of professionals left Wapda for greener pastures.
The situation improved to see the best between the years 2009-12, when again in 2014, the then government started an anti-theft and recovery campaign. It was spear-headed by the civil bureaucracy and assisted by the FIA (federal investigation agency).
The divisional commissioners, DIGs of police and others claimed ascendency and made their campaign the top news of the country. NAB (National Accountability Bureau) too was inducted to deal with the defaulters.
A few paid, the rest approached the courts and the campaign stalled as happens in such efforts. Quickly, NAB was re-called to its chagrin. All in all, the campaign could not yield any sustained results except causing a further deterioration of professional structures within DISCOs, which sadly continues. By this time, the umbrella PEPCO had been relegated with the then Ministry of Water & Power fully taking-over the governance of the sector.
The situation continues with a non-professional Power Division sitting in the cockpit and fully politicised BoDs (Boards of Directors) further spoiling the broth at the Discos. In fact, it has become even worse with the circular debt touching Rs 2.50 trillion (even after huge payments to the IPPs in the last six months) while sector’s receivables have reached a similar amount. Litigation in thousands gives us an insight into the veracity of DISCO billing. In other words, the non-professional dispensations have brought this sector to such a pass.
Presently, a new campaign has been started – probably, by retrieving the same dust-ridden files of 2014. This time around, the media had no problem with regurgitating the earlier headlines and stories – just by changing the date lines.
The Power Division’s (PD’s) style and propagation, this time, are a little different. The nuggets that cap all are that a stupendous amount of Rs 17 billion has been recovered from the Rs 2.5 trillion of receivables and Rs 500 billion of theft and that the PD could not understand as to why bills collection in Swat was good in comparison to the neighboring districts. Probably, a sociology study would be undertaken soon to understand the quirks.
Not to be left to minuscule gains – and that too at a big price of further lowering of customer care by DISCOs, it is reported that NAB is going to be once again tasked to make recoveries. This leads us to understand that the fished-out file is not fully used-up as yet and the part where NAB was required by law not to indulge in recovery etc. (as it did not fall into its job charter etc.) has as yet to unfold.
In addition, one DMG (BPS-17) officer in each DISCO has been posted, ostensibly to oversee or report on the ongoing campaign. The provincial governments would underwrite their pay & allowances, with the distribution companies tasked to provide lodging and transport. It is something like the earlier placement of subalterns in DISCO offices in 1998 onwards. What would these novices do; it all begs an answer.
Not to be left at these Clausewitzian strategy and maneuvers, it seems that federal officers from the DMG (District Management Group), Audit & Accounts, Police services (Railway and Military Lands &Cantonments Services are probably not considered as a Federal Service) are to be soon inducted as CEOs of the much-maligned DISCOs.
Although, it mirrors the posting of one-star generals as CEOs in the period 1998-2003, there are differences. The first is, that the 42,000 support troops are missing altogether and the second is even more serious which is the fact that a bureaucrat inducted in service through a competitive examination, now serving in BPS-20 or BPS-21 grade, has never managed hundreds of persons in a DISCO Sub-Division.
In order to explain the issue, it is seen that during this scribe’s first field posting in South Punjab during 1974-75, the electricity sub-division (a full civil district) had nearly 300 staff to manage and with sub offices each to control electricity operations in three tehsils of that particular District.
On the other hand, a typical Disco has over 25,000 personnel and LESCO has a yearly revenue base of over Rs 700 billion. Procurement and contracting too is of the same order of magnitude. This kind of control is not possible for anyone, but for the experienced cadre from the sector alone.
Consequently, any other experimentation would fail in line with other such placements of the recent past. This mindless step would, thus, be further fortified by non-professionalism around us. Similarly, the present mass-scale shuffles have never been the panacea that is thought it would be. The right way is always to ferret out the most notorious, while supporting the remaining to work.
This all can happen by shielding the competent ones from outside intervention and pressures and then providing the required direction. This is only possible if the BoD is really professional and well knowing, with a CEO – an expert and the best from the Power Sector.
From the above, it transpires that the problem besetting the sector is not being comprehended in its true perspective and is erroneously being deciphered by the decision- makers. The requirement was for the sectoral experts to get together to craft the correct strategy that is sadly missing.
On the other hand, as the current happenings are similar to that of 1997-2003 and of 2013-14 – but without studying the failures of those years, the current campaign in the end is bound to flounder without achieving the envisaged results.
This is what institutional memory concludes. However, it does not mean that the Power Sector as a whole (inclusive of the NTDC and the slumbering Gencos) – and not just the Discos, need immediate correction (but no more reform please).
Additionally, the side-lining of quite a few (in fact mass scale) amongst the staff of DISCOs – considering them to be of suspect integrity is another issue to contend with. This should not be whimsical and based on local biases or flawed reporting, which normally is the case during such campaigns.
Lately, the union in Quetta protested against the supposed meritless changes in Qesco and has also vowed to protest at the national level. Even if it is stifled at the onset, such situations should be avoided.
Why is it that proper lessons are not learnt? Why does history have to repeat itself? Why is it that the non-professional mind fortifies failures? Why do real issues get brushed aside at always? It has to be understood that the issues are the stumbling policies in vogue, non-professional governance, the extreme wayward management through juvenile political BoDs, temporary CEOs, top-heavy Disco structures, untrained middle management and the lack of out-sourcing against the 60,000 or so vacancies in all of the PSCEs (Power Sector Corporatized Entities).
Furthermore, as the current campaign / thrust is alien to DISCO employees and being set in motion without their full acceptance or from within, the heart and soul is far away. That it is further aggravated by the failed writ of the State in huge swathes of the country is another serious aspect. It was only recently that the Kasur District in the territorial jurisdiction of LESCO was declared as the top area of theft in the Punjab.
It was said to be akin to the erstwhile tribal districts of FATA, while the Commissioner Lahore Division himself presides over the anti-theft campaign in this very area. Incidentally, the same office-holders need to assure full writ of the state in their areas of controls, which would automatically improve all and specially the power sector operations.
The prognosis thus is that the present campaign, though most needed but powered by outsiders, has elements of failure – and this is what history tells us. And if at all, its sustenance and longevity is to be assured, then the missing requirements have to be fulfilled on priority.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023