Traders rattled as Pakistan government moves to restrict business hours to conserve energy, fuel

People shop at a supermarket in Peshawar, Pakistan, on April 2, 2022. (AFP/File)
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Updated 24 June 2022

Traders rattled as Pakistan government moves to restrict business hours to conserve energy, fuel

  • Move comes as hours-long power outages hit the South Asian country with demand outstripping generation in peak summer months
  • Soaring global fuel prices have increased pressure on external account and local currency has hit record lows against dollar

KARACHI: Pakistan could save around 2,000-2,500 megawatts (MW) of energy by reducing business hours at markets in major urban centers of the country, a senior minister said this week as traders warned that restricted trading timings would increase the crime rate in the country and decrease incomes.

The move comes as hours-long power outages have hit the South Asian country, with demand outstripping generation during the peak summer months. Soaring global fuel prices have also increased pressure on the external account and the local currency has hit record lows against the dollar. 

Pakistan, desperate to reduce the burden of imported fuel, energy and other items, last month banned the import of many non-essential luxury items. Its petroleum import bill has soared by over 99 percent to $19.7 billion during the current fiscal year between July 2021 to May 2022, mainly due to rising prices, according to the official data.

There is currently a gap of 4,600 megawatts between supply and demand, with supply at 21,000 megawatts and demand at 25,600 megawatts, the information ministry said on June 7.

To conserve energy, the provincial government in Pakistan’s southern Sindh government announced last week it was reducing business hours from 11pm to 9pm for at least a month. Authorities in Punjab followed suit, directing markets and shopping malls to close by 9pm. Business hours have also been restricted to 11:30pm in the federal capital, Islamabad. 

“Around 2000-2500 MW energy would be saved through this initiative across the country if religiously adopted,” Sindh energy minister Imtiaz Ahmed Shaikh told Arab News. 

“The government has taken the decision in the larger national interest after thorough deliberations. No political party would want businesses in the country to be closed and the country's economy to suffer and employment opportunities for people to be reduced.”

Traders have called on the government to ensure that planned power outages, called load shedding, did not occur during restricted trading hours.

“This decision is only practical when the government ensures that during trading hours no load shedding is carried out but the actual situation on ground is that daily more than four hours of power outages are quite normal in the city,” Atiq Mir, the chairman of the All Karachi Tajir Ittehad, an umbrella of major business associations in the city, told Arab News on Thursday.

“With reduced business hours, declining incomes, unemployment and high inflation rate, the people may resort to civil disorder and the crime rate would increase,” Mir added. “The workable solution for now is that the day should be without power load shedding or at least load shedding should be scheduled.”

Islamabad-based Kashif Chaudhry, president of the Markazi Tanzeem-e-Tajran Pakistan, an organization of Pakistani traders, told Arab News the government’s decision to close markets early would not yield desired results.  

“In the past, the government had taken similar decisions to save energy but it did not materialize,” Chaudhry said. “Such decisions negatively impact business and economy of the country and create a law-and-order situation.” 

Chaudhry said the timings of government departments should be changed so that traders would also be encouraged to begin their activities earlier in the day.  

“If the timings of government departments are set from 7 am to 3pm, then traders would also be willing to start their businesses earlier and close [early] in the evening.”

After taking office in April, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had increased the working week to six days from five, with only Sunday as a day off, saying he wanted to increase productivity. However, the enhanced work week resulted in greater electricity and fuel consumption by government offices and employees and the decision was reversed. 

Pakistan has experienced hours-long power cuts over the last month, with urban centres seeing four- to six-hour outages a day and rural areas over eight hours, as temperatures across the country soared - to 50 degrees Centigrade in some areas.

The Sharif government has blamed the situation on the mismanagement of the power sector by the previous administration of ousted prime minister, Imran Khan. Khan and his aides have denied any blame.

In the face of soaring energy prices, Pakistan is facing a balance of payment crisis with forex reserves falling below $10 billion, enough for around 45 days of imports, as well as double-digit inflation.

Indian court orders BJP spokeswoman to 'apologise to whole nation' over anti-Islam remarks

Updated 01 July 2022

Indian court orders BJP spokeswoman to 'apologise to whole nation' over anti-Islam remarks

  • Anger engulfed Islamic world last month after Nupur Sharma's incendiary comments during a TV debate
  • Nearly 20 countries called in their Indian ambassadors for explanation, rallies erupted around South Asia

NEW DELHI: A ruling party spokeswoman whose remarks on Islam embroiled India in a diplomatic row and sparked huge protests should apologize for having “set the country on fire,” New Delhi’s top court said Friday. 

Anger engulfed the Islamic world last month after Nupur Sharma’s incendiary comments during a TV debate on the relationship between the Prophet Muhammad and his youngest wife, with nearly 20 countries calling in their Indian ambassadors for an explanation. 

Rallies also erupted around South Asia, with police killing two demonstrators in India, while this week two Muslim men were accused of the grisly murder of a Hindu tailor who had posted in support of Sharma on Facebook. 

“She and her loose tongue have set the country on fire,” India’s Supreme Court said during a procedural hearing on several criminal complaints filed against Sharma. 

“This lady is single-handedly responsible for what is happening in the country,” it added. “She should apologize to the whole nation.” 

Since her comments, Sharma has been subjected to multiple police complaints filed against her across India by members of the public. 

While the 37-year-old’s whereabouts are unknown, her lawyer was in court asking that the cases be consolidated in New Delhi, a request denied Friday. 

Sharma was at one time seen as a rising star in the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but her remarks forced it into damage control. 

The party soon suspended the spokeswoman from her post and issued a statement insisting it respected all religions. 

Since coming to power nationally in 2014, the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of championing discriminatory policies toward followers of the Islamic faith. 

Critics also say the government has presided over a crackdown on free speech and rights activists. 

This week police arrested the Muslim journalist Mohammed Zubair, a vocal critic of the government who had helped draw attention to Sharma’s remarks. 

He was arrested on Monday and remains in custody over a four-year-old tweet about a Hindu god that police said had been the subject of complaints by Hindu groups.

Pakistan urges caution over Eid holidays as coronavirus cases rise

Updated 01 July 2022

Pakistan urges caution over Eid holidays as coronavirus cases rise

  • Pakistan has had few COVID-19 cases in recent months and had done away with almost all precautions
  • 694 positive cases reported in last 24 hours, nearly double the number at the start of the week on Monday

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Health Minister Abdul Qadir Patel on Friday called on the public to take precautionary measures as coronavirus cases once again rise in the country, calling masks “essential” during the upcoming Eid Al-Adha holiday and urging people not to shake hands and hug.

Pakistan has had very few COVID-19 cases over recent months and had done away with almost all precautions.

But over the past 24 hours, the national COVID positivity ratio had risen to 3.93 percent with 694 positive cases, nearly double the number at the start of the week on Monday, according to data released on Friday by the National Institute of Health, Islamabad (NIH).

“We must take precautionary measures against coronavirus and ensure social distancing,” Patel said in a statement. “Mask wearing is essential during the time of Eid-ul-Adha and avoid going to crowded places.”

The minister appealed to religious scholars to ensure social distancing at mosques and urged the public to avoid hugging and shaking hands during the Eid holidays. 

On Thursday, Pakistan issued fresh standard operating procedures (SOPs) for government office.

The NIH in a notification urged government staffers to avoid shaking hands and mandated wearing face masks and incorporating social distancing in seating plans and during prayers.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chaired a meeting to take stock of the coronavirus situation urging masses to take precautions against the infection.

Pakistan disbanded the National Command and Operations Center, its main pandemic response body, on March 31 as infections fell to the lowest since the outbreak began in 2020.

However, the South Asian country on May 23 reconstituted the NCOC at the NIH after health officials detected a new omicron sub-variant in a passenger arriving from Qatar. The new sub-variant of omicron is said to be highly infectious, though not as deadly as previous coronavirus strains.

Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) last week once again made it mandatory for all passengers on domestic flights to wear masks. Authorities are also urging eligible individuals to get booster vaccine shots.

There have been 1,536,479 infections and 30,395 coronavirus-related deaths reported in Pakistan since the pandemic began.

Pakistan inflation rose 21.3% in June 2021, highest rate in 13 years

Updated 01 July 2022

Pakistan inflation rose 21.3% in June 2021, highest rate in 13 years

  • In May, consumer price index was recorded at 13.8 percent, year-on-year
  • Fuel prices have been raised by about 90 percent since end of May

KARACHI: Pakistan’s consumer price index (CPI) rose 21.3% in June from a year earlier, the statistics bureau said on Friday, for the South Asian nation's highest inflation in 13 years.

In May, the CPI was up 13.8% on the year. The month on month rise in June was 6.3%.

The spike comes as fuel prices have risen about 90% since end May after the government scrapped costly fuel subsidies in a bid to cut its surging fiscal deficit and secure resumption of an IMF bailout programme.

Transport saw the biggest rise, with its index rising 62.2% in June on the year.

The price index for food items, which make up about a third of the CPI basket, rose 25.9%.

Pakistan has been struggling with high inflation for the last few months.

Despite rising global oil prices, subsidies for fuel and power were adopted in March 2022 by the government of previous prime minister Imran Khan, as he faced mounting discontent over his handling of the economy and rising inflation.

He was ousted in April, and the new government began reversing the costly subsidy, which it brought on par with international prices late last month.

Prices of fuel were hiked further on Thursday, with the cash-strapped government imposing a petroleum levy in its battle to reduce the fiscal deficit.

The levy, which officials expect to rise even further, was part of fiscal consolidation measures agreed with the IMF to resume the bailout programme. 

In rare animal rights push, Pakistan government to work with PETA on ‘critical’ reforms

Updated 01 July 2022

In rare animal rights push, Pakistan government to work with PETA on ‘critical’ reforms

  • Government on Thursday banned testing, surgeries on live animals at veterinary schools in Islamabad
  • Says will amend British-era law, replace it with “Pakistan’s first comprehensive animal welfare law”

ISLAMABAD: Shalin Gala, vice president at global animal rights advocacy group PETA, on Friday hailed “landmark” reforms in Pakistan that banned tests and surgeries on live animals for veterinary education, and said the organization would be working with the government on more critical reforms in training that would spare the lives of animals.

In a rare move to ensure animal rights in Pakistan, the government on Thursday banned testing and surgeries on live animals at veterinary schools and industrial complexes in the federal capital and announced a Rs15,000 ($73) fine and jail term for animal cruelty offenders.

The decision came after widespread outrage in Pakistan over videos that went viral in May showing animals in various states of distress after allegedly being operated upon by veterinary students. Activists and members of the public have widely condemned the practices and called for action.

At veterinary schools around the world, the practice of using live animals to teach surgery has been on the decline in the last decade. But an Arab News investigation published on June 10 quoted students and university management saying live animals were being used to teach surgical skills, though they added proper procedures were followed.

“Pakistan’s landmark reforms will ban tests and surgeries on live animals for veterinary education and shift to sophisticated humane methods,” Gala told Arab News.

He said PETA was “delighted” to have shared recommendations for improving veterinary training with Salman Sufi, head of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s Strategic Reforms Unit.

“We look forward to our upcoming meeting with him to discuss further critical reforms in biomedical research and training that will spare animals’ lives and benefit patients, alike,” Gala added.

On Thursday, the government banned live testing of animals at veterinary schools and industrial complexes in Islamabad, with Sufi announcing that the government would introduce amendments to a British-era law and replace it with “Pakistan’s first comprehensive animal welfare law.”

“Amendments for national level law are ready ... The bill will be tabled in the National Assembly during the next session [for debate and approval],” he said.

Citizens would now be able to report any acts of animal cruelty through a hotline and offenders would face fines of up to Rs15,000 as well as jail terms.

A standard set of guidelines was also going to be announced to regulate pet markets across the country, Sufi said, adding that violators would be fined and their shops closed.

Pakistani officials call for renegotiating free trade agreement with China

Updated 01 July 2022

Pakistani officials call for renegotiating free trade agreement with China

  • Trade Development Authority of Pakistan says free trade agreement could “be negotiated at political and diplomatic level”
  • Agreement poses serious threat to industry, impeding exports in absence of comprehensive review, apex trade body says

KARACHI: Pakistani trade officials said on Thursday non-tariff barriers were making it difficult to increase exports to China, as local industrialists and officials called for reviewing a free trade agreement between the two countries which they said posed a threat to Pakistan’s economy.

According to the Chinese media which recently quoted their country’s General Administration of Customs, Pakistan’s export to China increased by 68.9 percent in 2021 to $3.58 billion while China’s export to the South Asian country rose by 57.8 percent to $24.23 billion.

Statistics compiled by Pakistan’s central bank reveal the country received $2.5 billion in export payments in 2021 while imports from China stood at $16.13 billion.’

A second phase of the free trade agreement with China was implemented on January 1, 2022, which enabled Pakistan to export over one thousand products on zero duty.

“Non-tariff barriers are the main obstacle to our exports to China,” Arif Ahmed Khan, the chief executive of Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP), told Arab News on the sidelines of a seminar on the impact of the free trade agreement between the two states, adding this could “be negotiated at political and diplomatic level.”

Khan said the seminar was organized to highlight issues that were making it difficult for Pakistan to fully benefit from the agreement.

“We have benefited from the free trade agreement,” he added. “But we have to see how we can further benefit from it, reduce our losses, and identify areas where we need to improve.”

Responding to a question about renegotiating the deal with China, the TDAP chief said “we first need to identify the areas where renegotiations are needed which, I think, include the removal of non-tariff barriers.”

Addressing the gathering, Irfan Iqbal Sheikh, president of the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), said there was a widespread impression the agreement with China could pose a serious threat to the country’s industry and economy without its comprehensive and technical review.

“We should try to achieve maximum benefit from this agreement by further negotiating for favorable conditions,” he said.

The FPCCI president said dumping of Chinese goods in Pakistan had led to the closure of many cottage industries.

“The influx of cheap imports from China may have adverse economic impact, especially on domestic manufacturing sectors,” he said.

Sheikh told Arab News there were many things that needed to be “fine-tuned” in the free trade agreement.

“Pakistan’s actual exports to China should be between five and seven billion dollars in the next two to three years,” he added.

Hassan Daud Butt, chief executive officer of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Board of Investment and Trade (KP-BOIT), told Arab News on the sidelines of the event a major issue impeding trade with China was the lack of understanding between the business communities of the two countries.

While he recognized that Pakistan’s trade with China had increased, he said Pakistani exporters should explore niche markets for their products.

He said the agreement could be renegotiated while pointing out that “monitoring and evaluation [of trade under the bilateral arrangement] should be a continuous process.”