- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 25, 2010

FAISALABAD, Pakistan | Mohammed Rafiq has worked in Pakistan’s weaving factories for 35 years, minding the looms that turn thread into cotton fabric. But lengthy power cuts often leave him and his fellow workers idle and losing wages.

Outages of up to 18 hours a day are threatening the government’s credibility at a time when the U.S. is pressing it to step up its fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Mindful that a bad economy could mean more recruits to the militant cause, Washington has pledged $1 billion to improve the power supply, including upgrading thermal and hydropower plants as well as modernizing distribution.

Unless things improve, “I’m afraid I’ll lose my job, and the owner will close the factory,” said Mr. Rafiq, 52, with a gesture of helplessness, his arms covered in white cotton fluff. “I’ll have no future.”

The shortfall is estimated at 4,000 megawatts, one-fourth of maximum capacity, and practically no one in the nation of 180 million can escape the outages. They disrupt the workday. They shut down fans and air conditioning. Urban dwellers often return to a dark home, unable to watch a cricket match on TV or have a cold drink. The blackouts are even worse in villages.

The summer, when temperatures can reach 122 degrees, has only just started, and already rallies against blackouts are drawing hundreds of protesters. Some have turned violent, with cars and property destroyed.

Markets that stayed open until midnight or later have to close at 8 p.m. under a government conservation program that also has nixed late-night weddings that are the norm. Text messages offer “Brand New & slightly used Diesel and Gas Generators,” but few can afford them.

Things will soon get better as new power plants come online, promises Tahir Basharat Cheema, managing director of Pakistan Electric Power Co., but he makes no excuses for the state-run company’s failures.

“I’ll be very, very frank: Electricity should be available, and it should be available all the time,” he said. “I apologize to the people like anything, because it has been people like us who have missed the bus, who haven’t really done their work at the right time.”

The shortages began 10 years ago with a boom in consumer spending on household appliances that drove up electricity usage 15 percent in 2007 alone. It exposed deeply ingrained problems with the power supply — outdated transmission systems, widespread electricity theft, corruption and bureaucratic infighting that stalled power-generation projects, and even outdated records that leave bills unpaid.

Outages are particularly painful in industrial cities such Faisalabad, 160 miles south of Islamabad in Punjab province, the center of Pakistan’s textile industry, which accounts for 40 percent of factory jobs. Garments and textiles make up more than half the country’s exports.

Eighteen months ago, the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics surveyed 400 Punjab factories and said power cuts have slashed industrial output by 25 percent. Since then, the situation has only become more dire.

On a rare day when the power was on in Faisalabad, sweaty men and boys shuffled between rows of clacking 1960s-era looms in a warren of worn brick workshops. Two skinny goats hung out under dusty shade trees.

“This is the only work that I know. I’d be jobless if these factories close,” said 24-year-old Mohammed Younus. He has been working since age 14 to support his parents and 10 siblings. “What else could I do, besides taking up burglary or theft?”

Rafiq, a father of six, earns a cent and a half for every yard of cloth produced, bringing home $30 a week — when the power stays on. Lately, his family has had to cut down on food, and he has been borrowing to pay for essentials like flour and sugar.

Things had been slightly better in the past two weeks, with only four to six hours of outages daily, “but before that we were close to starving,” he said.

Mr. Cheema, the power company chief, said the new power stations coming on line this year will provide 3,400 megawatts, and added that officials also have signed off on long-term hydroelectric projects.

He expected outages of six hours daily at most in cities and eight hours in villages this summer, “But the difference is, our industry will have continuous supply during this time. This is the change from the last year — that it has been prioritized.”

That would be welcome news to Waheed Raamay, chairman of Faisalabad’s Council of Loom Owners, though he remains pessimistic. “I think these problems will keep on, and the industries will continue suffering. We talk to the labor, and they are so frustrated,” he said. “Eventually, I think a revolution will come in Pakistan.”

Breaking old habits will likely prove a big challenge.

Forty minutes into an hourlong interview at an official guesthouse, Mr. Cheema pressed a bell and summoned a staffer to shut off the chandelier lights. But the wall-mounted air conditioning and two ceiling fans stayed on.

“People of Pakistan are not conservation-minded. We are a very wasteful nation, allow me to say so,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even look. I’m very clear about these things. I don’t let anybody use electricity when we have God’s light outside.”

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