Panic-driven policies hurt the incumbent | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 10, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 10, 2010

Panic-driven policies hurt the incumbent

Power outage hurts.

IMPLEMENTING public policies is always a major hurdle for any government, democratic or otherwise. Managing them after implementation is even harder for a government when the press and media enjoy complete freedom under democracy. In recent weeks, the mohajote government has been experiencing major difficulties in managing the panic-driven policies in the power sector. In this regard at least four recent moves have been facing public scrutiny.
Last October, after completing the inaugural daylight saving trial, the government came to a decision that the scheme would go ahead in the summer of 2010. However, after rightly reading the pulse of the people, the government took an about turn and abandoned the idea for good. There is no point in talking about this now, however it must be remembered that a lesson was learned during the trial run in 2009.
No one knows why, without studying the subject closely, the government suddenly went for such a scheme which no nation in this region tried before. Was it a panic-driven policy for saving some precious megawatts of power?
It is now clear that by rejecting the idea of saving power via daylight saving the people remain committed to status-quo as far as their habit is concerned. Economics did not play any role. Once again, it has been established that the policies are for the people, people are not for the policies.
The readers without air conditioners at home or work will not be bothered about this initiative since it does not affect them. A few weeks back, the chairman of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) barred use of air conditioners between 6 pm and 9 pm. Non-compliance is punishable. The ERC enforced the scheme in order to save some precious megawatts of power. While the general public will hardly be affected because of this, there is no doubt that industries and the media, both print and electronic, will suffer the most.
Is not this a panic-driven policy? What study of the ERC supports the trade-off between savings in power and costs of running generators by peak time users of air conditioners? Moreover, when we know that the chairman and his colleagues have failed so far in reducing the so-called system losses (20 percent of generation), one wonders who will police this rule and collect penalties for the NBR's coffers. Certainly, this is panic-driven, and is unnecessarily hurting a democratic government in the eyes of the voters.
Presently, electricity consumers are going through a panic-driven trial run in managing load shedding, blackout at 2 hour intervals. One of my friends jokingly said that it was 2 hours of punishment and 2 hours of respite for the electricity consumers. Time will tell whether this experiment works effectively in economic terms. So far, unfortunately, public opinion has been against this approach.
Once again, this rule intruded into the habits of the people and all economic arguments have been ignored by the consumers. The power suppliers must come up with hard evidence and that this method of power saving is superior to the former alternatives.
It was reported in the media that the government was shutting down five gas-powered fertiliser plants temporarily and diverting the saved gas to increase power generation. Once again, this move may have some merit, but is certainly panic-driven. In doing this, one must remember that another front has been opened that might have future supply-side implications for agriculture.
Certainly, this is an extreme measure which governments would like to avoid. From this measure one can easily realise how serious the power generation problem is, and that it must be addressed without delay. Having said this, one needs to calculate the opportunity costs of diverting gas for generating power by shutting down the fertilizer plants.
Of course, it can be argued that things are easier said than done. But, I am sure that even the relevant policy makers would agree that policies driven out of panic do more harm than good. Thus, one must take lessons from the recent and not so recent past. Public policies must be backed by genuine and orderly studies in order to gauge public opinion.
Western-educated policy makers must not forget that the Bangla month chaitra is extremely hot. Moreover, it is now established without doubt that this region will experience more and more cold weather in the winter and lengthy hot spells in the summer due to global warming. There is no room for panicking. It is time now to educate the people and get prepared for tolerating extreme weather in both seasons.
While the present government's move for power generation is more praiseworthy than the former governments', it is also essential to clamp down on the unacceptable level of system losses. System loss is a distribution problem, thus, the ministry must work closely with the field-level PDB engineers to bring this rate to an acceptable amount. There is a need to bring discipline in managing the load-shedding operation until things get somewhat normal.
In this regard, it is possible to use the SMS services of the mobile phone operators to alert their respective customers about the exact timing of the blackouts, so that people can take appropriate steps to reduce suffering. Also, people in big cities need to make it a habit to check temperature forecasts from weather reports of TV channels so that they get day to day information on extreme weather conditions.
To achieve all these, it is the energy ministry which needs to play the major role and coordinate generation and distribution effectively. To play this role with full commitment the minister needs support from all quarters, particularly from the PMO.
It is also not good that the media have been engaged constantly in speculating about reshuffling of the cabinet. This cannot be a moral booster for any minister, let alone the energy minister. However, if anyone is found to be under-performing, he/she must go immediately so that he/she does not have time to inflict any further damage.
The mainstream media must have self-regulation in place and avoid being a source of unsubstantiated and speculative news, particularly on a cabinet re-shuffle, because it adversely affects the performance of the incumbents.
Dr Moazzem Hossain is the lead author of South Asian Economic Development, 2nd edition, Routledge, London and New York, 2010.

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