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EDITORIAL: Nepra’s (National Electric Power Regulatory Authority’s) chief didn’t inspire much confidence when he explained to the Senate’s standing committee on power that rehabilitation work on the Neelum-Jhelum hydroelectric plant was in process “but there is no guarantee that the tunnel will not collapse at a later stage”.

The country’s key hydroelectric project has been closed since June this year when blockage suddenly appeared in the 3.5km tail race tunnel (TRT), running into a Rs 10 billion cost every month for the government. “If the tunnel remains closed for a year, consumers will suffer a loss of Rs 120 billion,” Nepra’s chairman warned, adding that the tunnel would not be restored till at least June next year.

That begs the obvious question of contingency planning in case all this money is thrown at the project and the tunnel still collapses without warning.

Also, what is the guarantee that this deadline will be met when just last week the government claimed that the powerhouse would be fixed in six months? If, as adviser to prime minister Qamar Zaman Kaira informed the National Assembly a few days ago, the breakdown owed to cracks in the mountain from frequent rock sliding, then can this really be expected to be a one-time problem? This a rather unique project, after all, with 90 percent of it under the mountains of Kashmir where geology is unpredictable and barely even readable, and it is now becoming apparent that the risk premium might not have been properly calculated.

To make matters worse, it doesn’t seem as if the government is too bothered by all the problems in the power sector. It says a lot that neither the minister for power nor secretary power attended the crucial committee meeting, and that its chairman has been complaining of “not receiving any positive response from the power division” to its recommendations.

This attitude explains why the government has been unable to honour its promise of restarting 20 non-functional power plants that have been closed since before it came to power because of lack of fuel, technical issues and licencing problems. There are also damning reports that the Sharif administration, which was apprised of the power shortfall as soon as it came to power, has barely lifted a finger to solve these issues even as the country faces a protracted energy crisis.

This ought to be unforgivable in the best of times, but when households face unannounced power cuts and industry is struggling with input costs and the economy is close to collapsing, it makes the government guilty of retarding the country’s progress. The PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) coalition made a lot of fuss about PTI’s (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s) handling of the power sector, but its own time in office is turning out to be no different.

It is taxpayer’s money that is burnt to make up for these inefficiencies, and when successive administrations treat the energy sector paralysis as business as usual, suffering consumers have little to choose from at election time when it comes to issues that really matter for them.

There’s no telling when the 20 non-functional power plants would be brought back online, especially the Neelum-Jhelum project with its faulty and vulnerable tunnels. The first thing the government should do to restore some of its lost credibility is come out with an extensive and transparent action plan, detailing how and when the many problems are going to be solved. It must also make sure relevant ministries as well as the bureaucratic machinery do the job expected of them and sort out the black sheep that are not giving these matters, and their assignments, the seriousness they deserve.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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