Protests Over Power Bill Increases Spread in Pakistan

Protests against soaring power prices continued in Pakistan for a third consecutive day on Sunday, with television footage showing enraged consumers at rallies burning their electricity bills.The power supply department in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunk…

Protests against soaring power prices continued in Pakistan for a third consecutive day on Sunday, with television footage showing enraged consumers at rallies burning their electricity bills.

The power supply department in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province formally requested that police provide security for its staff and installations in the wake of threats of attacks by protesters.

For safety purposes, the department also instructed its staff to remove the license plates from their official vehicles.

The protests erupted on Friday and spread to many cities, including Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Multan, Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

The unrest over the increased electricity bills comes as the poverty-stricken South Asian nation of about 241 million people faces an economic crisis, with inflation hovering at around 29 percent.

The protests prompted caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar to hold an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss the high electricity bills; however, no immediate relief was announced.

Kakar's office said he adjourned the meeting until Monday. He also directed power sector authorities to devise "concrete steps" to reduce excess electricity bills and present the plan to him within 48 hours.

"We will not take any step in haste that will harm the country," the prime minister said.

The increase in power prices was a condition for Islamabad to secure a much-needed $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The deal came in July with the lender pressing Pakistan to carry out long-awaited economic reforms.

The government has also slashed energy sector subsidies in line with the IMF deal, sending fuel prices to an all-time high.

Local media reported that announcements from mosques in several cities had urged protesting consumers not to pay their bills until their demands are met.

Speaking to Pakistani news channels, protesters said their electricity bills were more than their house rents.

Consumers have posted copies of their latest bloated bills on social media, showing a dramatic price surge compared to the previous month's charges.

Trade union and business leaders have threatened a nationwide strike on Tuesday if the government does not reverse the rise in power charges.

Mainstream and regional political parties announced Sunday they would also join demonstrators in protest of the "exorbitant increase in electricity prices."

Last week, the Pakistani currency plummeted to more than 300 rupees against the U.S. dollar for the first time in history, raising concerns that the average Pakistani will find it more difficult to meet their financial obligations.

Officials maintain the IMF deal has saved Pakistan from default and paved the way for billions of loans and investments from longtime allies such as China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Independent economic experts and critics said the caretaker government could not immediately cut the taxes on electricity bills to meet protesters' demands because such a move would upset the IMF and jeopardize the timely release of the next tranche from the bailout package.

"The caretakers have little space to help inflation-stricken citizens without compromising on the fiscal goals of the present IMF program, which would be disastrous for the economy, as it could make the multilateral lender suspend or terminate the programme," read Sunday's editorial in English-language newspaper DAWN.

Source: Voice of America