Rioting against loadshedding
The country experienced widespread rioting against loadshedding on Tuesday, led by Punjab where mobs with urchins in front broke everything in sight. There was similar violence in the NWFP, and Karachi revealed its raging face once again in the aftermath of monsoon flooding and consequent power outages. The mobs were saying more or less the same thing: the government was inactive and blameworthy.
In Jhang in Punjab, the mob damaged public property with a vengeance: a standing train was filled with combustible matter and set on fire. Mob frenzy was the same as seen anywhere in the world. It was flecked with a kind of triumphalism over the youth’s ability to cause harm. Wherever the rioting took place, private property was damaged too and the mobs stopped anyone going in a car or a taxi and broke the vehicle’s glass and dented its body with sticks.
The target of the “protest” was the PPP government. Those who came out on business or in emergency were punished for not observing the strike. What were the vandals saying? The message was typified in the words of the PMLN’s Haji Maqsood Butt, who leads the market committees in Lahore. He told a TV channel: “The PPP government should resign or talk to us through the Punjab PMLN government and convince us that it will restore the normal supply of electricity”. He kept boasting of the “total” observance of strike at his call, but the TV channel did not ask him what he thought of the damage to public and private property.
In Lahore, shopkeepers who did not shut shop had to come out with sticks to defy the thugs sent out by the planners of the strike. Photographs of these “encounters” were published in Wednesday’s newspapers. The strike of which Mr Butt boasted was still partial, making it clear that the riots were not a result of all the people feeling the same way about loadshedding. Some TV channels were belatedly seen bringing some balance to their coverage by interviewing citizens who thought that violence against loadshedding was wrong and self-damaging. In many cases, the mobs attacked grid stations, perhaps unaware that damage to grid stations would mean not less loadshedding but more of it.
Comment in the media on loadshedding has been polarised and “political” rather than objective. The TV channels, pursuing their general rule-of-the-thumb policy of being on “the side of the people”, have been reporting human suffering due to loadshedding as an act of cruelty on the part of the government. Thugs leading the mobs said the President, Prime Minister and Chief Minister should also subject themselves to this suffering. The conviction was that loadshedding could be ended in short order but the government was paralysed and busy in its spendthrift ways (alalla-talalla) instead of caring for the people.
The TV channels are waking up late about their past coverage of loadshedding as a kind of backsliding of the present government. They have aired discussions that criticise the policy of privatisation of the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation under the presumption that somehow the government would have prevented the shortfall in the supply of electricity if the authority had been in its charge. The Steel Mill in Karachi, whose privatisation was set aside in 2007, is back again with its new record of loss-making, notching up Rs 20 billion in one year. This means that the government has to shell out this money in addition to the Rs 60 billion it owes to the electricity producers, called the IPPs.
The rioting and damage to property is not going to restore normal supply of electricity. In India, the common man patiently suffers long hours of loadshedding in scorching heat without asking for the overthrow of the government, mainly because India is not used to a premature ending of government tenures. But the rioters in Pakistan on Tuesday “hoped” the government would pack up and go if they kept up the violence long enough. Therefore the TV channels must introduce some balance in the comment their anchors offer on a daily basis. They must also balance the vituperation of those guests who adopt castigation as the only style of analysis of the energy sector in Pakistan. The media went wrong with its coverage of the 2005 earthquake; it went wrong in its analysis of the Taliban and it may be going wrong again in its coverage of the power crisis. (Daily Times)
Asadullah Ghalib, Express.