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EDITORIAL: While it is a little surprising that the investigation report into last week’s power blackout reached the power ministry so soon, its contents are not so shocking because it has identified sheer incompetence, unforgivable negligence and possible corruption as the main causes.

It turns out that the “technical breakdown” was caused by “temporary and substandard work, obsolete materials and tampered connectors” installed on towers of two mega nuclear power plants in Karachi.

The report went on to note that “project team used 25-year-old damaged connectors” and also that the connectors used were not designed for transmission lines; instead, they were “modified and used for temporary interconnection”.

It also says a lot that no repair or maintenance work was carried out since the dubious, makeshift arrangements were put in place, which was in 2019, despite the severity of the problem and the sensitivity of nuclear power.

This latest crisis, then, was just another disaster waiting to happen. If anything, it is pretty surprising that the system took so long to trip despite running on very faulty engineering work.

All this leaves a lot of egg on the government’s face because transmission is entirely its domain, and it alone bears the responsibility of making sure everything is in order.

Now it’s been revealed that not only was all not well at all, but there was no mechanism to raise red flags even as unqualified personnel were getting away with completely unprofessional work.

The government has promised to fix responsibility, ensure punishments and all that, of course, but it’s still not said anything about the lack of technical expertise at the very top. The National Transmission and Dispatch Company (NTDC), which runs the national grid, is under the control of generalist cadres and has seen at least 13 managing directors in the last 10 years. Of these 13, 11 were not even qualified engineers.

They were mostly joint secretaries from the power division on deputation or acting-charge basis. That not only seriously impacted the continuity of planning and implementation of policies, of course, but also brought the bureaucracy’s typical inefficiency to the power sector’s transmission machinery.

Therefore, even if a few officers responsible for the 2019 fiasco get a rap on the knuckles, the bigger problem is not going to go away and engineering proficiency will not make its way into the system.

It seems the way NTDC, if not the entire power division, is configured needs an overhaul. Any system run on an ad hoc basis and patched together with half-fixes is bound to break down every now and then. And since the country regularly going dark without any warning also eats into productivity and revenue, this problem is not confined to the power ministry.

Surely, the government knows best how tight the ongoing financial squeeze is and understands why households and producers alike were up in arms last week. When their production margins are not cut by high cost of energy, they lose out because of lack of it; and that too for no better reason than unqualified people doing extremely important work and, more often than not, nobody being aware of all the lapses.

This is simply unacceptable. The government must do more than punish the few people that were responsible for the latest embarrassment. It must treat this report as the wakeup call it has been avoiding all these years and finally shape up the entire power ministry.

Otherwise, these investigations and their reports might fill the headlines for a couple of days every now and then, but the problems will not go away. And consumers, producers and the national kitty will all remain hostage to the power sector’s paralysis.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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