As Pakistanis discuss major causes and crippling effects of the worst ever power crisis in the nation's history, "load shedding" and "circular debt" are two key phrases that have entered the vocabulary of average people in Pakistan during the last few years.
What do these common phrases mean? Let me start with "load shedding" first. Long and daily power outages are called "load shedding". "Load shedding" is supposedly an attempt to share a limited resource equitably among many consumers. In addition to insufficient installed capacity as the culprit, the dramatic increase in "load shedding" in the last two years is commonly also blamed on growing "circular debt" which results in significant under-utilization of power plants already in place. There is credible data to suggest that the deepening electricity crisis since 2008 has more to do with the independent power producers(IPPs) operating at less than 50% of their installed capacity because they can not pay for the fuel they need to produce more. The outgoing finance minister Mr. Shaukat Tarin acknowledged the problem of circular debt, and tried to focus on it. He even threatened to quit last year over the lack of resolution of this problem. However, he was only partially successful in paying down the government debt. He is reportedly taking a parting shot at the problem on his final day in office.
The key players in this "circular debt" trap are the federal and provincial governments as the biggest deadbeats, the power distributors like KESC, the power producers like Pepco and Hubco, and the fuel suppliers like government-owned Pakistan State Oil (PSO) and partially state-owned Pak-Arab Refinery Ltd (PARCO). This debt circle begins with the government as the biggest debtor and ends with a government-owned entity as the biggest creditor. So the obvious question is: If the government is both the biggest debtor and the biggest creditor, then why is it that the government leaders can not solve the problem? Is it the lack of will? or the lack of competence? Is there a personal profit motive of the top leader of the ruling PPP, who is allegedly pushing rental power plants (RPPs) contracts ahead of the speedy resolution of circular debt? Is it a combination of corruption and incompetence? The answer to these questions depends on who you ask.
Clearly, the circular debt problem has assumed alarming proportions, threatening Pakistan's future. The IMF and the US officials in their recent meetings with Pakistan government have described the circular debt as a significant threat to the country’s economy.
After signing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of rental power plant (RPPs) projects in the face of harsh criticism, the government is finally starting to deal with rising circular debt to address power shortages. Outgoing finance minister Saukat Tarin recenly told the News that “in real terms the circular debt has swelled to Rs108 billion which mainly includes non-payment of Rs42 billion by KESC, Rs21 billion by the government of Sindh and Rs15-16 billion from commercial consumers to the Pakistan Electric Power Company (Pepco)".Just prior to leaving office, Tarin has decided to raise Rs. 25 billion as a small step toward settling a debt estimated at hundreds of billions of rupees.
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