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EDITORIAL: Just as winter typically raises the spectre of gas shortage, it also always brings the spectacle of the government scrambling to tilt the headlines in its favour. This year it decided to amend the Natural Gas (Development Surcharge) Ordinance, 1967, including altering definitions for prescribed and sale prices to enforce recoveries and punitive measures. In layman’s terms, it means that a number of very senior people have sat down and once again discussed issues that should have been addressed at least 10 years ago and now they expect the people to appreciate all the effort that is being put in for their benefit. And if history is any guide, it’ll get everybody thinking that things will get better next time; until the cycle repeats itself all over again.

The fact is that the gas sector’s main problems are very straight forward and require much less scrambling to address properly. It’s not just a story of an epic waste of a very precious natural resource, one that very few third world countries were blessed so abundantly with, but rather one where the state just does not learn any lesson and not only allows more gas to be wasted every year, some of its own policies actually force more wastage. In the first place, it wasn’t very smart of the two state gas behemoths - Sui Northern and Sui Southern companies - to provide gas through their network of pipelines at a much lower price than its extraction and transmission cost and then not expect a circular debt to build.

It also says a lot that they allowed Pakistan to become the lead country in the world in terms of percentage of cars running on CNG systems — a very large number in absolute terms considering our very large population — and then everybody was shocked when they were told that reserves were running low with nothing productive to show for them.

And now they’re frustrated that people are complaining about the very large price differential between natural gas and LPG, which most people have to resort to especially since pipeline pressure isn’t what it used to be. And the lowest two income quintiles of the population are the most dependent on cylinder gas and firewood, which means the poorer lot pays a lot more for its cooking and heating than the far better off part of our society.

There are also cases of grave injustice, in places like Quetta, where ordinary users are fined if their monthly gas use is below a certain reading. And since they suffer from gas load shedding for most of the day every day, this particular stipulation forces them to keep their stoves and heaters on at full blast when the gas does come; to avoid the penalty. In this way the state’s own laws push consumers to waste gas, which is simply ridiculous.

All things considered, while it’s a very good thing that the government is taking the trouble to amend laws where necessary to correct some of the most glaring discrepancies in pricing, the people have seen many such huddles at crunch time and should be forgiven for dismissing them till they see something more tangible. They would, however, be a little more impressed if their genuine grievances were given a little more serious attention at the top.

An exclusive research report in this newspaper revealed that natural gas for the lowest consumption slab users is under a dollar per MMBtu, while it is $8/MMBtu for the highest consumption slab. And ‘the average for domestic consumption is close to $3/MMBtu’. LPG users, on the other hand, have been paying on average $24/MMBtu so far this fiscal.

Surely, the government is aware of these stats since it gets them before the press. And correcting such blatant and unfair exploitation of the neediest gas users, while facilitating wastage of the commodity, ought to be a more urgent matter than one lost to endless meetings and feedback loops. The government’s scramble would be more appreciated if it were preceded by strictly defined goalposts. After all, it doesn’t do much good to run very fast if it’s not in the right direction.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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