Gassing down the government
- Written by M A Niazi
ISLAMABAD, Jan. 9 (The Nation) - There is an underlying gas crisis which has gripped the nation, and which has led to a shortage following price hikes, and then yet another price hike, just in case the earlier ones were not noticed.
The reason for this shortage is the burning of existing gas. Even if gas is imported adequately to make up for what has been used up, it will be imported gas. For the consumer, it will, probably matter less whether the gas comes from Iran or Turkmenistan, as the fact of its coming from abroad, and thus at a price which will be out of the control of the government in Islamabad. Meanwhile, there are agonies being endured, especially in the urban areas, by a nation which has grown used to burning gas not just to bathe and to warm itself in winters, but also to cook. That means gas, even if it runs out in Pakistan, must be imported.
The government has an even greater fear afflicting it than simply the prospect of the populace growing restless. It is relying on the coming election to prevent it from facing something like the Arab Spring, but the gas shortage, combined with its other failures of the past, have made it uneasy about the public reaction to the gas shortage, about whether it will wait long enough for elections, or will be too outraged to be patient. It has been confident (or desperate) enough to announce gas tariff increases, and to couple them with petrol price increases. Combined, they have shed a different light on the current opposition PML-N campaign, of the removal of the President and fresh elections. As the campaign depends on public disaffection with the government, further price rises will only fuel further disaffection, and thus increase the possibility of opposition success. It has not helped the government that it can only claim that removing it would mean the end of democracy. The argument that democracy matters more than anything else is wearing somewhat thin in the face of the persistent price hikes, and the rising prices of carbon fuels. However, as it represents the only way the PPP can come to office, it is going to be beaten to death even more before being abandoned.
One of the main reasons that gas is such a threat for the government is that it fits the pattern of incompetence that afflicts it, and which has been created by its handling of other issues, and which has created an impression that it is not good at solving the problems of the people. Petroleum and natural gas provide a good example, because not only do they themselves cause inflation by rising, but they play an important part in the prices of other goods. There is bound to be an inflationary effect which the government will not be able to control.
Another problem that the government has run up against is that natural gas has been seen by the government itself as a cure for Pakistan’s environmental problems. That there is a kernel of truth in this has made the shortage all the worse. Natural gas first substituted as a fuel for cooking and heating, a role fulfilled before it, by wood, either in the shape of lumber, or of charcoal. That wood is now simply not available, and no one is prepared for it, neither the houses, at the micro level, nor the neighbourhoods or cities. The occupations that went into making firewood feasible no longer exist. It is unlikely that Pakistan can produce even a fraction of the firewood needed, because previous logging has denuded Pakistan of forest cover. It should not be forgotten that the rural population, still the majority of the populace, already employs either firewood or dung for fuel for heating and cooking. LPG is used by many, but cylinders are available only with difficulty. There is really no alternative to piped gas.
The second environmentally friendly reason for using gas is in transport, in place of petrol or diesel. The increasing use of petrol in motor transport had meant the enveloping of cities in smog, especially in winter. The widespread use of natural gas had the effect of reducing this smog. That the substitute fuel was cheaper did not bring down fares, but it helped bring them under control. However, when public transport was converted to gas cylinders, there was a spate of fatal accidents on public transport which led to people being burnt alive. This resulted in a ban which provoked the strike of the CNG Station owners and the public transporters. The CNG stations were under threat of closure for January, which was not carried out, but which caused widespread panic among motorists who had seen a steep rise in the price of CNG, but who still saw it as cheaper than petrol. Therefore, when the government makes people stop using gas, it makes them choose either doing without heat in winter, or turning to environmentally more harmful means. That would be particularly painful after having got used to the benefits of environmentally sounder practices.
Again, the damage to the government has been more in terms of the perception of indifference to the problems faced by ordinary people. To counter this, the government has not taken any measures which demonstrate a commitment to public welfare. This is seen as a major failing, because the primary purpose of any government is supposed to be public welfare. However, the present government seems so deeply committed to the protection of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’ son-in-law from the courts, that it seems it has little energy for anything else. This is not only a high-risk political strategy, but it is also self-serving. The party seems to be going along because it has no real choice.
The strike which was over this time may not be possible to avert in future, when the gas crisis will be worse. The government needs to find a replacement, and quickly. There are three approaches, all of which must be pursued. First, it must arrange for the gasfields that have not been tapped in the past, to be brought online. At the same time, it must also arrange for the swift completion of the gasline from Iran, so that its gas can reach Pakistan. The USA, which is doing its best to isolate Iran, must not be allowed to stop it, as it stopped India from going ahead with the project. The complicating factor that the Iranian gas line illustrates is the use to which it is to be put, of supply to the power plants. The thermal power plants run on furnace oil, which is imported at great cost, and which is highly polluting to boot. The thermal generation plants in Pakistan can also run on gas, which was previously supplied from indigenous sources. Thus the gas shortage is very obviously tied into the power shortage.
The government should also remember that relieving the gas shortage by making up for past government mistakes will not add to the public welfare, but merely preserve for the public a benefit it has got used to. The public itself is probably taking for granted what was only a temporary facility: gas is not really very old, and when it was discovered, it was not expected to last forever. Though Iranian and Turkmenistani gas is going to last longer, they too are finite resources, and it is time there is more work on solar, hydel and wind power, as well as other renewable sources of energy.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation