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Message to power defaulters on 1-5-2014

IN a country where the rich and powerful are all too often wilful violators of the law
and the state itself often considers itself above the law, there is something fleetingly
satisfying about seeing the electricity switched off, however briefly, in various state
institutions in Islamabad on Tuesday.

Yet, was it little more than a PR stunt devised by the Ministry of Water and Power to
deflect attention from the increasing load-shedding across the country as the
mercury rises? Or was it a genuine signal that the government is getting serious
about addressing the seemingly intractable problem of billing in the power sector?
For now, the answer appears to rest somewhere in between those two extremes.

Perhaps a basic, though broadly overlooked, problem when it comes to virtually all
debates about the electricity sector and how to reform it is that very few of the facts
are actually known. What is the scale of the receivables? Who owes what and to
whom? Are the receivables accepted by both sides or are they disputed, and if they
are disputed, what amounts are involved? Why are government departments
perennial defaulters and who is responsible for paying up and why aren`t they held
to account? The various numbers all in billions of rupees though mentioned by
various officials indicates that even now the government has not done its basic
maths well on the billing side. Even more complicated is the system of tariff
determination. Between fuel adjustments, delayed notifications, the government
and Nepra tug-and-pull, un-provisioned for mark-up liabilities and delays in releasing
tariff differential subsidies, the faulty pricing mechanism of electricity itself is in a
mess. It is unsurprising then that the recovery side of the billing equation continues
to show an increase in slippages.

Yet, it is also possible to read too much into the details: while an efficient and fully
functioning electricity system would need the minutiae addressed, a marginally more
efficient and better functioning electricity system is surely within grasp if a few big-
picture issues are addressed. It is here though that the government`s failing has
become apparent. Why was dealing with systemic issues on the recovery side
delayed until the onset of summer? Would it not have made more sense to iron out
the problems when the load on the system was less intense, so that by now some of
the benefits of higher billing recoveries could have translated into greater electricity
output? But consider the priorities of the political class itself, with the opposition
leader in the National Assembly Khursheed Shah pouncing on Minister of State Abid
Sher Ali`s reference to politicians as power thieves. Or, indeed, Mr Ali`s ability to find
power thieves everywhere but in Punjab. Once again, politicians are playing politics
with the electricity sector while the consumer suffers.
Sindhs child marriage law
THE Sindh Assembly deserves praise for being the first legislature in the country to
have passed a bill prohibiting child marriage. The provincial
assembly unanimously passed the Sindh Child Marriage
Restraint Bill, 2013, on Monday, which makes it illegal for
anyone under 18 to contract marriage, while also penalising
parents and others who facilitate child marriage. It is a brave
step to pass such a bill, especially in an atmosphere clouded by
obscurantism. It sends a strong message against the deplorable
`custom` of child marriage while also reiterating the elected
representatives` right to frame laws, as opposed to unelected
bodies such as the Council of Islamic Ideology. It should be
recalled that it was the CII which had earlier this year said that
laws prohibiting underage marriage were `un-Islamic`. The new
Sindh law replaces a colonial-era legislation dating back to
1929, and declares child marriage a cognisable, non-bailable
offence, punishable with rigorous imprisonment.

However, simply passing a law is just the first step; the only way
society`s ills will be addressed and done away with is if these
laws are enforced through a proper mechanism. For example,
various progressive laws against crimes such as honour killing,
sexual harassment and domestic violence have been passed at
various levels over the past few years. Yet these crimes
continue unabated largely due to lax enforcement. And when
regressive customs such as child marriage are so deep-rooted in
society, it will take considerable time and effort from both the
state and communities to eradicate them.

Lawmakers in the Sindh Assembly rightly pointed out the need
to create awareness about the child marriage law. Efforts
through the media and at the grass roots need to be made to
educate people about the psychological and physical harm child
marriages can cause, especially to young girls. Public
representatives can play a crucial role in communicating this
message to their constituents. And while a complaint can be
filed with a judicial magistrate in case the law is broken,
perhaps a body can be set up where violations of the law can
be reported. Other provinces would do well to follow Sindh`s
example.
Sinful traffic violations
MOST countries struggle to get drivers to follow the law. Rarely, though, has anyone
had the sort of idea dreamt up by Saudi Arabia`s grand mufti, who struck upon a
potential solution back in 2010. Back then, he had issued an edict saying that anyone
who caused the death of anothwilfulwer person because of a traffic violation was
guilty of involuntary manslaughter. More recently, on Tuesday, he issued a fatwa
against drivers who jump red lights, terming such a transgression as `haram`. In other
words, in that conservative kingdom, a driver who jumps a red light risks not just
action against him by the law, but his very standing in the eyes of his Maker. There is
no denying, though, that the problem is a serious one: Saudi Arabia has one of the
highest rates of car accidents in the world, with an average of 17 fatalities a day.

According to a 2010 report, almost a third of traffic accidents in Riyadh occurred
because drivers failed to follow traffic signals.But for much of the rest of the world,
regular, man-made traffic rules do seem to achieve the desired results, i.e. road
safety, especially where these are strictly enforced. Unfortunately, Pakistan does not
count amongst these states, and the outside observer would be forgiven for thinking
that only divine intervention could sort out our traffic problems. Jumping red lights is
but one of the multitude of violations that occur constantly on our roads. From
recklhess driving to not following one-ways to illegal stops and turns all these
violations are committed under the very noses of our traffic police. The latter might
take some of the offenders to task but will invariably let off the influential among
them. Clearly, greater checks by the traffic police on wayward drivers, and
penalising, without fear or favour, those who violate traffic rules and endanger lives
will have a more, immediate, deterring effect than any fatwa warning of divine wrath
in the Hereafter