It isn’t the first time that a ‘technical fault’ in one section of the country’s electricity infrastructure has had a cascading effect causing the entire grid to shut down, resulting in a nationwide power outage. A less severe and more limited blackout took place recently in October under the PML(N), owing to the same reasons being explained currently by related ministers and senior members of the party. The latest one lasted for considerably longer, well over 12 hours and at time of writing had not been fully resolved. That the underlying issue that led to this has been identified as a failure of the transmission framework, serious questions arise over its reliability, efficiency and upkeep. Although the crippling energy shortfall problem was addressed by the PML(N) back in 2013 when excess capacity was installed under various development projects, a substandard and unreliable transmission network remained largely unaddressed. This much was confirmed by State Minister Senator Musadik Malik as he defended his party over the ongoing blackout. The PTI has meanwhile had a field day during the crisis, comparing its response time to its own blackout early last year, with some going as far as to insinuate that there was an element of intentionality to the breakdown so that ‘scarce furnace oil could be conserved’. Yes, such outlandish conspiracy theorizing is right up PTI’s alley, but one cannot ignore how quickly this notion caught traction on social media and messaging groups, pointing towards a particularly worrying problem for the ruling party; it seems many do not feel very ‘energy-secure’ in the current economic climate. Internet memes suggesting the same through humour further built the case against confidence in the government’s ability to stabilize the economy.
What perhaps made matter even worse was the messaging by Energy Minister Khurram Dastagir Khan. His explanation that in winters ‘we turn everything off at night’ and then ‘turn it on in the morning’, but ‘this morning it didn’t start back up correctly’ is comedic, overly simplistic and frankly unbecoming of a trained engineer who could have chosen a more articulate way of explaining what had happened. That he followed this up with the announcement that a separate investigation was ongoing in to the possibility of a ‘foreign power’ hacking into our energy system and compromising it was not only embarrassing but irresponsible, providing no useful information to the public, just creating unnecessary panic and controversy.
This current episode may have happened on the PML(N)’s watch, and there was a bungling of the immediate response, but that is not where the responsibility solely lies. All those governments of the past and present that have left the transmission infrastructure broadly unattended with no upgrades are to blame. With no investment of time and money in the energy delivery aspect of providing electricity, there will always be risk of similar countrywide blackouts that last hours on end. Unfortunately, no such work can start without a government that has a full mandate and an economy that is not on the brink of collapse.