Power outage piles on misery for millions in Pakistan, draped in darkness

People visit a market, where some shopkeeper are using generators for electricity during a national-wide power breakdown, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on January 23, 2023. (AP)
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Updated 23 January 2023

Power outage piles on misery for millions in Pakistan, draped in darkness

  • Daylong breakdown raised frantic questions about infrastructural weakness and the urgent need to upgrade an aging grid
  • At shops and malls around the country, citizens lined up to buy battery-powered lights and candles as outage crossed 12 hours

ISLAMABAD: Over twelve hours after a nationwide power failure struck Pakistan in the latest breakdown of a perennially troubled national grid, electricity began to return to parts of the capital on Monday while a majority of the country’s 220 million people remained in the dark.

Pakistan’s energy minister Khurram Dastgir Khan said earlier in the day that power would be restored “by tonight” as the government scrambled to fix a breakdown that has raised frantic questions about infrastructural weakness and the urgent need to upgrade an aging grid.

While Pakistan has enough installed power capacity to meet demand, it lacks adequate resources to run its oil-and-gas-powered plants. The energy sector is also heavily in debt and cannot afford to invest in new infrastructure and power lines.

For Pakistanis, Monday’s nationwide loss of power was a frustrating continuation of hardships brought by an economy in a tailspin for months, with foreign reserves running out, inflation at decades-high levels and industrial growth slowing down.

An aerial view shows Pakistan's capital Islamabad during a nationwide power outage on January 23, 2023. (AFP)

In Islamabad, the capital, and the eastern city of Lahore, citizens lined up at shops on Monday to buy battery-powered lights and candles.

Parvez Malik, a 76-year-old lawyer, said candles and rechargeable lamps were sold out at all major grocery stores in Lahore.

“I finally found two lights and they were for fifteen thousand each,” he said, quoting the price of lights that usually cost around Rs2,000.

An aerial view shows Pakistan's capital Islamabad during a nationwide power outage on January 23, 2023. (AFP)

At a market in Islamabad’s elite F-6 sector, shopkeeper Adil Khan said he had not sold much all day and all that customers wanted was battery-powered lights.

“Most customers came for rechargeable lights but as compared to usual days, we had no business,” Khan said. “We have suffered huge losses because of the power outage for the whole day. The big businesses are pouring oil in generators and running their businesses but the real affectees are small businessmen like me.”

Saif Raj, who owns a computer shop in Islamabad’s Blue Area, said most shops had closed hours earlier on Monday evening.

“The market usually closes at 9pm but it’s 7pm and most of the shops have closed,” he told Arab News.

In a statement released on Monday morning, Energy Minister Khan said as part of an energy saving move, electricity was turned off across Pakistan during low usage hours overnight to conserve fuel. Technicians were unable to boot up the system all at once after daybreak, he added.

“There is no major fault … In winter the system is closed due to low demand at night and is switched on in the morning,” Khan said.

“Today morning, when the system was switched on, a huge breakdown occurred due to a drop in frequency between Jamshoro and Dadu,” he added, referring to two southern regions.

Motorcyclists and cars drive on a road during a national-wide power breakdown, in Lahore, Pakistan, on January 23, 2023. (AP)

Power began to return in parts of Islamabad after 8pm, but was still out in Lahore. In Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital and home to the stock exchange, the central bank and a giant port, a spokesperson for the K-Electric supply company said power was being restored “gradually.”

“Restoration of power in most parts of Karachi is expected in next three to four hours,” he said in a statement, adding that K-Electric was working with the National Transmission and Dispatch Company (NTDC) to restore power from the national grid.

Residents in most parts of the city said they were still waiting for power over thirteen hours after the outage.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif ordered an investigation into the breakdown and summoned an “immediate report” from the energy minister.

“Why did such a massive crisis of electricity arise?” the PM was quoted as asking in a statement. “Those responsible should be identified ... The difficulties of masses are intolerable.”

An aerial view of Pakistan's southern city of Karachi during a nationwide power outage on January 23, 2023. (AN photo)

Monday’s outrage reminded of one in Pakistan’s southern regions in October, when it took a whole day for power to be restored in major urban centers like Karachi, Hyderabad, Quetta and other areas of the Sindh and Balochistan provinces.

The outage was also reminiscent of a massive blackout in January 2021, attributed at the time to a technical fault in the country’s power generation and distribution system.

Chaudhry Amin, the chief executive of the Lahore Electric Supply Company (LESCO), which supplies power to some of Pakistan’s most populous cities in Punjab province, said in the afternoon electricity would be restored in Lahore and its adjoining areas “soon.”

He confirmed that all LESCO grid stations had tripped, “depriving industrial, commercial and domestic consumers of electricity.”

The Orange Line Metro Train service was also suspended in Lahore, depriving millions of commuters of their usual mode of public transportation.

A spokesperson for the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) said airports were not facing any power issues while the national highways and motorway police said traffic signals in most areas of the country were not working.

“There are unconfirmed reports of restoration varying from 15-20 hours,” a statement by the highway police said. “If electricity is not restored until darkness, keeping in mind the law and order situation, kindly make sure your car and house doors are locked properly to avoid any incident.”

At a commercial area in Islamabad, Malik Faisal, who owns a plywood business, said there was no work all day and he was out with a friend as there was no electricity at home.

“I read a media report yesterday that 70 percent people want to go abroad [leave Pakistan] and from today, I am also among those 70 percent,” Faisal told Arab News. “I called all my friends today that we also need to move away somewhere because we have no future here and neither do our families.”

- With inputs from Naimat Khan in Karachi

Greece remands Pakistanis over alleged anti-Semitic plot — lawyer

Updated 31 March 2023

Greece remands Pakistanis over alleged anti-Semitic plot — lawyer

  • The two men admitted exchanging messages concerning a possible attack on a Jewish restaurant in Athens
  • They got instructions from a third man in Iran, though the Iranian embassy denied any connection to the plot

ATHENS: Greece on Friday remanded into custody two Pakistani suspects accused of plotting an anti-Semitic attack after they testified before a magistrate, their lawyer said.

The two men, aged 29 and 27, admitted exchanging messages concerning a possible attack on a Jewish restaurant in Athens, lawyer Iraklis Stavaris told AFP.

They are charged with participation in a terrorist organisation, a crime that carries a possible life sentence.

Stavaris on Friday said his clients had admitted exchanging Viber messages with a third man, whom police have identified as a Pakistani allegedly living in Iran.

On the third man’s instructions, Stavaris said, they scouted out and took photographs of a kosher restaurant in Athens that is also a Jewish prayer centre.

Police arrested the two Pakistanis in February for illegal entry into Greece.

Citizen’s Protection Minister Takis Theodorikakos told Skai TV this week that the alleged plot targeted “locations of Jewish and Israeli interest in Athens”. Asked if the case was watertight, he replied: “absolutely”.

“Monetary gain was the apparent motive,” he told the channel.

Police said separately that the pair had “already chosen the target of the attack” and were planning how to execute it.

Following an investigation by Greek intelligence agency EYP, anti-terror police carried out raids in Athens, Sparta on the Peloponnese peninsula and on the island of Zakynthos, the minister said.

Another 10 Pakistani men questioned in connection with the case were released Thursday after no incriminating evidence was found, a police source told AFP.

No weapons have been found, according to official statements so far.

Greece was included on a list of countries with travel warnings issued by Israel’s National Security Council ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover in early April.

Israel this week accused Tehran of being behind the plot and said its Mossad intelligence agency had assisted the investigation.

“After the investigation of the suspects in Greece, the Mossad helped untangle the intelligence of the network, its operational methods and ties to Iran,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said on Tuesday.

“As part of the investigation, it emerged that the infrastructure in Greece was part of a broad Iranian network, operated from Iran toward many countries,” it added.

Iran’s embassy in Greece on Wednesday denied any connection to the alleged plot.

Greece’s Jewish community numbers around 5,000. The government has good relations with Israel, including a number of security and military agreements.

Greece has not been targeted by extremist attacks in recent years.

Greece’s intelligence agency EYP is seeking to regain credibility after a wiretap scandal that erupted last year.

Earlier in March, EYP hailed as a “success” the discovery of an alleged Russian spy after she had already fled the country.

The woman, who was using a fabricated Greek alias, had been in Greece since 2018.

Ramadan ration stampede claims 11 lives in Karachi, highlights Pakistan’s struggle with inflation

Updated 31 March 2023

Ramadan ration stampede claims 11 lives in Karachi, highlights Pakistan’s struggle with inflation

  • Officials say they have sealed the factory where the incident took place and arrested its management
  • Seven other people also lost their lives in recent days at free ration distribution sites in KP and Punjab

KARACHI: At least 11 people were killed and several others injured on Friday, said officials, when a stampede broke out during a free ration distribution in Karachi, Pakistan’s southern port city, amid the country’s mounting inflation crisis.
The incident took place in a factory located in the SITE industrial area where hundreds had gathered to receive wheat flour and other food items during the holy month of Ramadan.
“At least eleven people, nine of them women, were brought dead to Abbasi Shaheed and Civil hospitals,” Dr. Sumaiyya Syed, Karachi police surgeon, told Arab News.
She added that five injured people were currently being treated at the city’s two medical facilities.
Mukhtar Ali Abro, deputy commissioner of district west, said the owner of the factory had invited people to benefit from the free ration distribution, an annual activity performed by affluent individuals in Pakistan during Ramadan.
“We have sealed the factory and arrested its manager along with six other staff members,” he told Arab News. “The owner of the facility, who left this morning to perform Umrah, has also been nominated in the case.”
Abro said the factory owner had not sought permission to distribute ration among such a large number of people, which led to a high death toll.

People mourn next to the body of their family member, who was died in the stampede, at a morgue, in Karachi, Pakistan, on March 31, 2023. (AP)

Meanwhile, the top leader of the province’s ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, instructed Chief Minister Sindh Murad Ali Shah to probe the incident, said an official statement.
“The loss of precious lives in the factory incident is tragic,” Bhutto-Zardari was quoted as saying.
He also urged the authorities to ensure such incidents do not happen in the future.
In a statement, the chief minister regretted the deaths and said that people should inform the administration about ration distribution and other welfare activities to avert such incidents.
About seven people lost their lives in the last couple of weeks as families struggling with soaring costs of basic necessities thronged at free ration distribution sites in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.
Pakistan is currently facing a massive economic crisis that has led to spiraling inflation in the country, resulting in an increase in the cost of basic food items.

UAE-based biotechnology firm expresses ‘keen interest’ in Pakistan’s pharmaceutical sector

Updated 31 March 2023

UAE-based biotechnology firm expresses ‘keen interest’ in Pakistan’s pharmaceutical sector

  • Chairman of Abu Dhabi-based Hayat Bio-Tech calls on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in the federal capital
  • Sharif reiterates his country’s desire to expand its relations with the United Arab Emirates in diverse fields

ISLAMABAD: A delegation from the United Arab Emirates, led by the chairman of an Abu Dhabi-based biotechnology firm, called on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in his office and expressed “keen interest” to invest in Pakistan’s pharmaceutical sector, said an official statement on Friday.
The UAE and Pakistan have close fraternal relations and enjoy bilateral cooperation in a range of fields.
The Gulf country is Pakistan’s third-largest trade partner after China and the United States and is also home to more than 1.6 million Pakistani nationals.
“His Highness Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook al Maktoum, the chairman of Hayat Bio-Tech and a member of the ruling family of the UAE, along with a delegation, called on Prime Minister Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif in Islamabad today,” said the statement.
Sharif welcomed the delegation and said that Pakistan attributed great significance to its relations with the UAE in diverse fields, including trade and investment.
“The prime minister welcomed the keen interest of Hayat Bio-Tech to invest in Pakistan’s pharmaceutical sector, especially in vaccine manufacturing,” said the statement, adding that the PM also invited the visiting delegation to invest in renewable energy while assuring them that foreign investors would get all possible facilitation.
Sheikh al Maktoum said his country was aware of Pakistan’s huge investment potential and was looking forward to further expanding its footprint in the energy and health sectors.
The visiting dignitary added the UAE wanted to further increase its investment portfolio in Pakistan while briefing the prime minister about his country’s ongoing 1,200-megawatt solar and wind energy project which it is undertaking in collaboration with the provincial administration of Sindh.
Aside from investing in Pakistan, the UAE has also assisted the country financially by depositing money in the State Bank.
Earlier this week, the top UAE diplomat in Pakistan, Hamad Obaid Ibrahim Salim Al-Zaabi, also held a meeting with the country’s finance minister, Muhammad Ishaq Dar, as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pushed the South Asian nation to get external financing commitments from friendly nations before releasing its bailout funds.

Pakistan currency dealers offer $24 billion loan to government as alternative to IMF bailout

Updated 31 March 2023

Pakistan currency dealers offer $24 billion loan to government as alternative to IMF bailout

  • Local dealers say financing will be arranged through currency swap agreements with local and overseas Pakistanis
  • Economists say the proposed plan is not sustainable and may put the country back on FATF’s radar screen

KARACHI: As an alternative to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) bailout program, Pakistani currency dealers have offered to arrange about $24 billion to shore up the country’s foreign exchange reserves for the next two years “in the larger interest of the country,” an official said on Friday.
Cash-strapped Pakistan is currently in talks with the IMF for the completion of the ninth review of the $7 billion bailout program signed in 2019. However, no progress has been made until now to reach a staff-level agreement, even as the government has implemented several harsh conditions to fulfill the lender’s requirements.
Pakistan desperately awaits the disbursement of $1.2 billion from the IMF under the loan program since it would boost the country’s low foreign exchange reserves which currently stand at $4.2 billion, barely enough to cover one month of imports.
The country’s currency dealers have offered to arrange the much-needed dollars in this context through a swap agreement with overseas and local Pakistanis to steer the economy out of the current crisis.
“We offered the government six months back to arrange $24-25 billion through outright purchases from Pakistanis at least for two years,” Malik Bostan, president of the Exchange Companies Association of Pakistan (ECAP), told Arab News on Friday.
Bostan said he repeated the offer during a recent meeting with the members of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance in Islamabad.
“The companies have offered to arrange funds of $1 billion per month for the government so that the country can get rid of the IMF program,” he said, adding that the exchange companies were already contributing $400 million per month to the interbank market.
Asked to further elaborate the plan, the ECAP president said currency dealers would approach overseas and local Pakistanis and offer currency swap agreement for the well-being of the country.
“Under the agreement, we will take loans for a certain agreed period and offer them the current exchange rate,” he explained. “They will benefit from the exchange rate fluctuations, and appreciation at the end of the contract term.”
Bostan said the idea to raise dollars for Pakistan was not new as a similar approach was adopted back in 1998 through which $10 billion were raised with the permission of then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and central bank governor, Muhammad Yaqub.
“We had toured Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, and approached Pakistanis, and they had responded well,” he continued. “The country is still reaping the benefit of 1998 fundraising.”
The ECAP official said the exchange companies needed the government’s approval to implement the proposed financing arrangement which required direct dollar purchases from abroad and people at home.
While Bostan said the government’s nod will allow the country to get the much-needed funds, Pakistani economists termed the idea “unsustainable” and risky which could put the country back on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) radar.
“The financing solution proposed by the exchange companies may provide short-term relief, but it is not a long-term solution and there is a risk of putting the country back on the FATF watch list,” Dr. Sajid Amin, deputy executive director at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), told Arab News. “The government must stick to the IMF program and complete the reforms that the country needs for its long-term survival.”
Amin said the current IMF program seemed “tough” but it was because the authorities had failed to implement structural reforms which were mutually agreed with the fund.
“We have been playing politics with the IMF program which has delayed the implementation of prior actions,” he continued.
Amin added the conditions seemed tough because of the implementation timeframe which was short.
Pakistan has approached the IMF 23 times in its history to get bailout programs but has only completed one of them.

Political crisis deepens as CJ refuses to form full court in election postponement case

Updated 31 March 2023

Political crisis deepens as CJ refuses to form full court in election postponement case

  • Chief justice says the Supreme Court will take a break if political parties begin to negotiate and settle the matter
  • Legal experts say CJ’s leadership capability has come under question after the recusal of two judges hearing the case

ISLAMABAD: The ongoing tussle between the government and judiciary intensified in Pakistan on Friday after a three-member bench resumed hearing a petition filed by former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party against the election postponement in Punjab province, while refusing to form a full court to adjudicate the matter.
The country’s election commission announced the postponement of the Punjab polls this month, citing security, administrative, and financial reasons, after the province’s legislative assembly was dissolved by Khan’s party in January to force the incumbent administration to hold early general elections in the country. The PTI filed the petition against the commission’s decision since Pakistan’s constitution requires that elections must be held within 90 days of the dissolution of an assembly.
The Supreme Court’s proceedings were delayed on Friday after two senior judges, Justice Jamal Mandokhail and Justice Amin-ud-Din Khan, parted ways from the five-member bench that originally took up the PTI petition. The development followed the approval of a bill by the upper house of parliament on Thursday to curtail the chief justice’s power to use “suo motu” authority, which allows the court to open cases on its own to address issues that it deems to be of public interest.
The government, which recently presented a National Assembly resolution demanding an end to the top court’s “interference” in political matters, requested a full court hearing, although the chief justice said it would waste time since the bench had already heard the case for three consecutive days.
“It will take time for the new judges to understand the case,” Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial remarked.
He said that the court was willing to “take a break” if the government and the opposition PTI party started negotiating over the election date. However, he also warned that the court would play its constitutional role if the political parties failed to make headway.
Giving reasons for a delay in the elections beyond 90 days, Attorney-General of Pakistan Mansoor Awan told the court that the country was running a deficit of Rs1,500 billion, which was expected to rise further until June.
The Supreme Court summoned defense and finance secretaries on Monday to get input on the security personnel and funds needed to hold the elections. The chief justice also hoped that next week’s sun would rise “with good news.”
Meanwhile, legal experts said the recent legislation to curtail the chief justice’s power would ultimately land in the courts for judicial review while commenting on the ongoing tussle between the government and judiciary.
“The fact that a law will also address some concerns raised by certain political parties is not a good enough reason to be suspicious about its constitutionality,” advocate Waqqas Mir said while speaking to Arab News.
“I feel the proposed law will force the Supreme Court to have an urgent conversation within its members about whether they want the important issues [relating to suo motu and constitution of benches] to be addressed by politicians or by themselves,” he added.
Mir said the recusals of the judges were not happening because they wanted the elections to be delayed but “the clearly stated reason for recusals is reasoned disagreements by judges about the exercise of discretion to form benches and exercise of powers under Article 184(3) of the constitution.”
“Disagreements over ideas, interpretations, and principled positions are not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “As long as personal collegiality remains between judges, the institution should come out stronger.”
However, advocate Imran Shafique said the recusal of the judges in the elections delay case was a manifestation of a “full-blown crisis and unrest” in the Supreme Court, which would weaken the institution in the longer run.
“Unfortunately, the leadership capability of the chief justice has been questioned as he has failed to take all the judges along in dispensation of justice,” he told Arab News.
Asked about the legislation related to the chief justice’s powers, Shafique said it would help abolish the “dictatorship role” of the top judge at the Supreme Court.
“After the implementation of the legislation, the institution will be making decisions instead of an individual, which is a good thing to happen,” he added.