A spark in every outage

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Capitalism brings economic growth, or so we were told in college. In Karachi, Pakistan’s most capitalist society, growth seems to be defined in terms of financial opportunity and social mobility: every outage caused by the current standoff between the KESC management and its workers has produced sparks. No one is a loser in Karachi.

Much before the current row, KESC had been at loggerheads with the Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) to supply more gas. Their argument was that operating turbines on gas is more cost effective than generating electricity with oil. When gas supply decreased, load-shedding increased – almost as if the KESC did not want citizens or the SSGC to get used to the bad habit of electricity being produced from oil. The SSGC did increase supply a couple of times, most often at the intervention and request of the government. But the last time the management decided to fire some 4,500 workers in January, the KESC used it as opportunity to squeeze more gas supply from the SSGC. And some more. The KESC shelved plans to lay off its workers after it was placated with a little more supply.

Ever since the current row has started, there has not been a peep from the KESC on gas supply – partly because it has abandoned its timed and regulated load-shedding regime. Earlier, the power utility was extremely particular and punctual about when outages would begin and end but a non-working workforce has now meant that repairs and maintenance have become selective: the elite areas of the city continue to get some sort of service, but the poor and middle-class localities lose electricity for hours on end without any guarantees of when power will be restored again.

Selective service has meant a more “efficient” utilisation of fuel for the KESC: the power utility picks and chooses the areas to be powered, and where repairs will be conducted. As a result, it is seldom short of gas supply. Power riots have become a routine in the city, but the KESC always has the argument of no working workforce to fall back on.

This, of course, is the side of the story where the KESC has much power. The other side is one where citizens have the entire agency and the KESC is but a reluctant service provider.

The repairs and maintenance schedule was most affected when the management-workers row had initially started. Line faults and wire theft were aplenty, some genuine and others created. Many in the “other side” of town turned to the MQM’s complaint cell at Nine-Zero, hoping that the party could be of some help. Some complaints were resolved, with the party sending over electricians and activists to sort the matter out. Many other complaints went unheeded, since it was beyond the technical capacity of ordinary MQM electricians to repair the more-complicated faults.

With the MQM unable to help, citizens looked for alternatives – and found them in those same folks protesting outside the Karachi Press Club for more than a month now. KESC workers protesting by the day turned into private contractors by night: groups of four to five friends constituted teams and offered their services to those in need.

In one such narrative, the price quoted by these workers to a neighbourhood in New Karachi was Rs 100,000. The workers left midway after residents of the area implored them to charge Rs 60,000 for their services; they returned only after residents bowed down to the original sum. Many of these workers, drawing monthly salaries ranging between Rs 15,000 and Rs 35,000, now claim that they make at least four times as much by operating outside the discipline of the KESC. Perhaps the power utility is outsourcing the wrong jobs.

This is the first time in recent history that the street logic of Karachi that the MQM can resolve almost any matter was challenged: the MQM largely remains silent, partly because like other parties, its members have personal and financial stakes in the power utility. The ANP, ever the ostracised from benefits of being in government, was quick to jump to the workers aid – most of whose unions are backed by the MQM and PPP. A new wave of clashes between the two parties is emerging, with the KESC management-workers row being used as the justification.

Meanwhile, the ISPR-esque one-sided KESC narrative of attacks on its offices continues. Workers rebuff these allegations. But someone, or some party, is using the “attacks” to ensure that nothing gets resolved but that life goes on as usual. Such organised chaos is possible in Karachi because every outage produces a new spark in this beloved metropolis of ours.

 

The writer is Deputy City Editor, Pakistan Today, Karachi.