Pakistan power shortages keep growth prospects dim
FAISALABAD, Pakistan -- The machine operators lean back lazily on rolls of cotton fabric, shooing flies from their sweat-soaked tunics as their boss, Abdul Latif, paces between rows of silent electric looms covered in lint.
The textile plant owner knows it's just one of several rolling blackouts that will darken his plant today, as they have every day for four years. Along his street, other textile plants have either closed or begun selling their looms for scrap. Latif scrapes by, but the outages have cut his plant's output in half.
"The situation is very bad," Latif says. "We're losing contracts because of these outages. We can't deliver on time. If it continues like this, we may have to shut down."
One of Pakistan's biggest scourges has nothing to do with suicide bombers or militants wielding Kalashnikov assault rifles. Because the country cannot produce the electricity needed to support a population of 177 million, the government intentionally shuts down power in staggered intervals, often for hours at a time.
The rolling blackouts are most frequent during the summer, when the whir of air conditioners in 100-plus-degree heat boosts demand for power. Apart from districts with top government and military offices, virtually every neighborhood and village suffers.
The stopgap policy prevents the country's moribund economy from getting off the ground. And as long as the economy sputters, millions of Pakistanis remain mired in poverty and joblessness, leaving the country's disaffected youth vulnerable to recruitment by Islamist militant groups.
President Asif Ali Zardari's government has given Pakistanis little reason to hope for a solution anytime soon. This summer, government officials said that it would take at least seven years to build up the electricity generation capacity needed to eliminate the blackouts.
Various factors explain Pakistan's power woes. During Gen. Pervez Musharraf's rule from 1999 to 2008, strong economic growth fueled an upsurge in consumer spending that had Pakistanis flocking to stores to buy air conditioners, refrigerators and other appliances. But Musharraf failed to pump money into boosting generation capacity to keep up with demand and the country's booming population.
Zardari inherited the massive gap between supply and demand, but his cash-strapped administration hasn't moved fast enough on hydroelectric dam projects and has yet to shore up the country's aging distribution network.
Other factors make the situation even worse. About 15 percent of the electricity generated is lost to theft, says Ejaz Qureshi, a spokesman for the state-owned Pakistan Electric Power Co. In addition, the government often fails to pay its bills to private power producers, which means those companies can't buy sufficient fuel for their plants. At times, they cut off electricity to the offices of government agencies that owe them money.
The havoc wrought by the shortfall is particularly acute in the country's textile industry, a pillar of Pakistan's fragile economy.
Faisalabad, Pakistan's third-largest city and home to its textile sector, has seen 200 of its 4,000 textile plants close in the last three years because of the blackouts, says Wahid Raamay, chairman of the city's Council of Loom Owners and a plant owner.
During that period, 100,000 workers have been laid off, about 10 percent of the city's textile workforce, Raamay says.
Plant owners forced out of business face a grim future. In a country where many people distrust banks, many plant owners sell their personal property - gold, jewelry, cars - to buy the machinery needed to start the business. If their plants close, they may find themselves at rock bottom.
"They all used to have good cars, good homes, and now everything has disappeared," Raamay says. "Now they ride motorcycles to get around."
Five months ago, Malik Mohammed Kashif was forced to shut down his plant, lay off 80 workers and sell his 66 looms to scrap dealers.
On a sun-baked afternoon, Kashif strolls through his darkened, empty building and winces as he speaks of the future.
"As for me, I'm finished," says Kashif, a 30-year-old father of four. "With the shutdown, we lost $350,000, nearly everything we had. We're at the bottom now because of this."
This summer, public anger over ceaseless power outages boiled over. In Mianwali, in Punjab province, throngs of demonstrators calling for a stop to the outages clashed with baton-wielding police in early July. Two people were killed and 22 were injured. In Karachi, four people were killed during protests and work stoppages in early June that brought sections of Pakistan's largest city to a standstill.
In Faisalabad, the extent of blackout-induced layoffs in the textile industry has reached the point that plant owners often work the looms alongside their laborers.
At Latif's plant, workers paid by the hour say the outages cut their already meager wages in half. Machine operator Mehmood Hussain makes $4.65 a day when the blackouts don't occur and $2.32 when they do. For a family of seven reliant on his income, the difference is huge.
"It's a critical situation now," Hussain says. "We can't buy decent food or buy clothes for ourselves. And there's no way out. Looms are all we know."
One group, however, prospers from the textile industry's misery: the scrap dealers. Their stalls on the edge of the city are filled with grease-covered gears and flywheels stacked next to piles of wooden rollers and spool holders.
Dealer Mohammed Sharif says he sometimes buys up to 100 looms a day, paying just $290 for machines that cost plant owners $1,500.
"When the textile plants suffer, our business booms," Sharif says. At the same time, he knows the scavenging can't last indefinitely.
"If looms continue to shut down at this rate, a day will come when we won't have any business at all. What will we do then?"
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