Implications for underdeveloped communities
A collaboration by Muhammad Muzammil Zia and Ismail Pirzada
Pakistan’s public power sector has witnessed a state of utter disrepair following the hike in oil prices immediately after the global recession in 2008. Unpaid dues by consumers, the illegal allocation and theft of power lines, and general mismanagement saw the country mired in a severe period of load shedding strains starting in mid-2007. Industrial power supplies were the hardest hit, with many medium-to-large sized industrial units, particularly those in textile, finding solace in cheaper labour and better energy provision in countries such as Bangladesh. Pakistan’s currently-tenured federal government has sought to address this trend via the building of new electric-supply plants both independently as well as under the tutelage of the Pakistan China Economic Corridor, or CPEC. The expansion and stabilisation of Pakistan’s power sector is the crux of improving previously-neglected, impoverished and underdeveloped districts of the country.
A majority of CPEC projects and their funding currently are dedicated to the construction of a particular energy corridor designed to supplement the transport networks being cultivated in Pakistan at the moment. Energy is a crucial component of the economic health of any modern state, as it consists of hard infrastructure that enables manufacturing capabilities, high-efficiency logistical solutions for transporting said manufactured goods, innovation in the education sector through IT-based learning and attendance platforms, upkeep and operation of basic health facilities, as well as the basic nuances of the very businesses that drive and promote the consumption necessary for economic growth. A study by Rehana Siddiqui for the Pakistan Development Review states that electricity shortages dating from 2008 wreaked an industrial output loss of anywhere from 12 to 37 percent across all of Pakistan’s provinces, with the physical Pakistani Rupee volume of lost profit ranging anywhere from 270 to 819 billion PKR, which equates to $2.56 billion to $7.77 billion USD as per the exchange rate at the time of writing. Under the tutelage of CPEC, Pakistan’s power sector is likely to see a whopping 7,000 MW added to national grid capacity through early-harvest projects alone.
However, even with the advent of CPEC-oriented electricity generation, which is expected to add an upwards of 17,000 MW of power by 2030 as per the program’s long-term vision, several communities, including those in remote areas but in close proximity to such newly-minted plants, remain questionable in terms of their electricity supply. Eventual adoption of micro-grid connectivity for such communities remains the key to unlocking their maximum potential as a productive workforce and citizenry for Pakistan. Additionally, not only is power capacity being expanded, but so is Pakistan’s transmission capability, as transmission lines from Matiari to both Lahore and Faisalabad allow for the transport of electricity throughout the entire vertical longitude of the country.
It is critical to note here that while CPEC does necessitate heavy financing and manpower involvements from the Chinese side of things, the benefits to the average Pakistani solely due to the provision of electricity far outweigh any nuances over foreign debt and ownership. Such benefits are only compounded by the fact that an indigenous, locally-elected Pakistani federal governments have failed to provide such a municipal service for decades. In addition, with the provision of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, provincial authorities have more legislative and policy-making ability than ever before in order to better serve their constituents.
Through eras of political instability and economic hardship, Pakistanis have proved themselves to be a resilient nation. The question remains is to how exactly the potential we carry as both producers and consumers, the two components necessary for the foundation of a stable, strong economy. CPEC chooses to address this specifically through the implementation of the prior-mentioned energy corridor, merely due to the sheer amelioration in quality of life provided by access to energy when citizens require it. A horde of developing nations have already undergone the process of rural electrification, with the advent of employment, in addition to empowerment of vulnerable demographics clear to see. As per the World Bank’s assessments, the simple provision of electricity has the immediate impact of higher productivity for students while studying at home, the ability to sustain business for longer hours, as well as an uptick in general safety standards due to the well-lit nature of areas in towns previously considered unsafe at sunset.
In order for this initiative to be successful under a Pakistani context, it would be key to assess and quantify large population centres that lack connectivity to the national grid but already happen to be in close proximity to existing and upcoming power plants under the CPEC project. Urban sprawl in regions such as those surrounding Lahore and Karachi are the most likely beneficiaries of such an approach, considering the amount of satellite towns and communities that have sprung up on the outskirts of these localities in order to gain employment within Pakistan’s urban metropolises without having to purchase into the ever-increasing cost of land and associated rent within them. With the construction of both the transport corridor, such communities are not only better-connected to the nerve centres they serve, but the energy provisions allow for them to be fully-functioning jurisdictions of their own. There remain several quagmires with what is termed in local vernacular as katchi abadis, as in land that has not been earmarked for residential use but merely been settled. Once such areas are provisioned with a consistent electricity supply and appropriate road linkage, the land is legitimised in certain aspects from which point onwards the government may assign it to a particular tehsil or district in due time. The utilisation of micro-grid systems also enables such communities to access power lines directly connected to those of the main urban megacities they happen to be in proximity of. Considering that a majority of Pakistan`s economic activity still revolves around farming, the innovation that can be achieved with mere irrigation and crop processing technologies would allow productivity in an otherwise medieval setup to flourish. The country’s national labour supply, additionally, increases as schooling for those in such areas is rendered easier and more sustainable.
All in all, CPEC provides the Pakistani government a framework by which to increase the country`s electricity-generation capacity in relation to communities that do not currently enjoy the fruits of basic lighting. The most critical notion to observe, however, is that rural areas in themselves will still be low-volume consumers of electric power compared to their urban counterparts, meaning that while initial input of capital remains high, stress on the eventual complete Pakistani grid will not be emanating from underdeveloped parts of Pakistan.