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Pakistan in uproar as protests over soaring energy prices turn violent

Pakistan has been engulfed by widespread protests as citizens rally against soaring electricity and petrol prices, marking a week of discontent with thousands taking to the streets and even resorting to burning their electricity bills in protest.

The price of electricity has doubled over the past three months, reaching approximately 50 Pakistani rupees (equivalent to 12 pence) per kilowatt-hour. Petrol prices have surged from 262 rupees per liter in June to 305 rupees this month.

Pakistan finds itself in a state of political and economic turmoil, characterized by a staggering inflation rate of 36.4%. Additionally, Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted from office in April of the previous year following a vote of no confidence. The nation also suffered severe flooding last year, submerging significant portions of the country.

Protests took a violent turn in Karachi last week when an employee from the utility company K-Electric (KE), responsible for generating and distributing power in the city, was attacked by an enraged mob.

In response to threats of attacks by protesters, the energy department in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province requested police protection for its staff and installations, according to VoA.

Atiq Mir, president of the All Karachi Tajir Ittehad, a traders’ association, remarked, “Hunger can bring out the worst in people.”

The culmination of these protests led to widespread closures of shops and markets across Pakistan over the weekend, in response to a call by the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami. These closures on Friday and Saturday are estimated to have cost the country approximately 10 billion rupees (£25 million).

The surge in prices has had a severe impact on the daily lives of ordinary Pakistanis. Many, like Mohammad Niaz, have struggled to cope with the economic challenges. Niaz, who used to work as a waiter in Saudi Arabia until the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to return to Pakistan, revealed that his monthly income of 30,000 rupees was insufficient to cover his expenses. Rising food prices, coupled with a doubling of his electricity bill in just three months, have left him struggling to make ends meet.

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics reported that the price of wheat flour more than doubled since August 2022, resulting in a similar increase in the price of bread. Sugar has also become more expensive.

Perween Riaz, a Karachi resident of nearly two decades, is contemplating returning to her village in Punjab province due to the financial strain of living in Karachi. Despite earning 25,000 rupees a month as a carer and her husband earning the same as a driver, the couple, with six children and two grandchildren to support, is finding it increasingly challenging to provide for their family.

Amid these protests, Imran Rana, the director of communications for KE, stressed that electricity prices are set by the government for the entire country. He noted that utilities nationwide are under fire for something beyond their control and urged against resorting to violence, emphasizing that attacking utility staff who are simply performing their duties will only exacerbate the situation.

Muhammad Ali, the energy minister, acknowledged that the government is working to resolve the situation. However, he pointed out that many of the current issues are beyond the government’s control, attributing them to the soaring dollar rate and global petroleum price increases.

Ali explained that Pakistan is forced to sell petroleum products at higher prices due to the increased costs of importing expensive fuel, which, in turn, results in higher electricity rates. He indicated that this situation was partly a consequence of an agreement made by the previous government with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The deal included raising prices as a condition for securing a $3 billion (£2.4 billion) loan to prevent a default on foreign debt in July. Another condition was ending fuel subsidies. The caretaker government is now challenged to find solutions, given that these measures were long overdue.

Efforts have been made to encourage traders to adjust their operating hours, avoiding electricity use during peak periods between 6:30 pm and 10:30 pm when charges are highest. Currently, most traders operate from noon to 10 pm. However, this proposal has encountered resistance from traders in the past.

Some individuals have managed to escape the price hikes by adopting alternative energy solutions. Azher Karimjee, a businessman, installed 10-kilowatt solar panels and storage batteries on his roof three years ago. As a result, he has not had to pay a rupee to KE because he produces enough energy to sell back to the power company.

The government is now considering whether to regulate this tariff system to prevent revenue losses. The rising “capacity payments” to independent power producers, which are fixed against interest and exchange rates, have increased as the rupee has depreciated and interest rates have risen, presenting challenges to the government’s fiscal stability.

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