Part two of my five-part postcard of impressions of my Pakistan visit is what I heard….
Pakistan hums with machinery. It is a powerful hum that, in certain instances, drowns out all other sounds. One barely notices the cacophony of Pakistani families who travel in packs, or hears the ‘Allahu akabar’ of the azan, the Islamic call to prayer, or even the jingles of the brightly colored and elaborately adorned trucks and buses whose hoods are decorated with a belly dancer’s jangled hip scarf.
This potent hum, however, is no white noise. It is the reverberation of back-up power generators that are found in most Pakistani businesses, hotels, offices and homes. With persistent outages that can last up to 15 hours daily, self-powered generators are the only viable option, for those who can afford it. I counted five outages sitting in my five-star hotel one night. Yes, Pakistan has an energy crisis.
Pakistan’s government has not adequately responded to this crisis. Rather than repairing outdated power plants that lack capacity production or resorting to alternative and less expensive sources than oil and gas, it has called for a reduction in supply, decreed that “marriage halls will no longer be able to host all-night wedding parties,” and has banned neon signs and brightly-lit billboards. To be fair, Pakistan is afflicted with a host of other plagues including insurgent violence, unemployment, inflation, corruption, weak governance, and crumbling infrastructure, made worse by this past summer’s devastating floods.
Still, without solving the key matter of energy, the country has little prospect of economic progress or defeating the insurgency. “The shortages have crippled industry and led to rioting across Pakistan,” a BBC report says. Energy: Pakistan’s Catch-22.
Pakistani officials blame tax evaders for the problem. “Why should Pakistanis pay their taxes,” one citizen told me, “when they have to pay out of their own pocket for the basic services the government cannot deliver?”
While energy is ultimately a government’s responsibility to provide, it needn’t be government’s burden to produce. There are entrepreneurs that have ideas for solving Pakistan’s energy crisis. Wasae Shaikh, a scrappy and scrawny 25 year old I met at Karachi’s Institute for Business Administration, is one such person. Shaikh, a second-year MBA candidate, wants to set up model villages that produce solar and wind energy. National Geographic sparked his idea.
“I watched this episode about wind farms in Amsterdam,” the trim bearded Shaikh said to me as we stood underneath a large tree in the institute’s courtyard. He thought, “We’ve got wind here in Pakistan. The sun too. We can launch an alternative energy business using solar panels and biomass fuels,” he said pausing to look at me. “I want Pakistan to be self-reliant. We have to give it a try for our people. I want to do it for my people.”
“For my people,” was a refrain I kept hearing from Pakistan’s youth and its entrepreneurs. Their country may not have enough energy, but they do. And they’re using theirs to pull Pakistan out of its political and economic abyss. Young and bright Pakistani entrepreneurs, who have the option to leave, are staying behind to launch businesses, in such fields as textiles and technology, to help their country. Wasae Shaikh is one example. In the coming days and weeks I will give you others. Through their efforts, Pakistan, I believe, will continue to hum, not to the machinery of generators, but the machinery of this generation.