Failure to implement structural reforms: Lack of policy consensus within govt biggest culprit, says Tabish

Ex-SAPM on Power and Petroleum Tabish Gauhar finally spoke his mind on Saturday, after lapse of 12 days since his resignation on September 21 while tweeting his 2,523 worded account of what he observed and learnt being part of the government for one year.

He touched upon the vital issues including the structural reforms in energy sector, fear of NAB impeding the decisions out of box solutions, and role of ‘mafia’ operating in energy sector issues. He also pinpointed political meddling into energy related affairs apart from highlighting the media role.

The former SAPM flagged the implementation of structural reforms in the energy sector as the real challenge that requires government’ to surrender centralized executive power. Everyone laments the vested interests, and so-called “mafias”, resisting such structural reforms, but during his one year experience in the government, he found the lack of policy consensus within the government as the biggest culprit. He argued that sooner or later, deregulation or decentralization is the only sustainable policy prescription for any future government

Gauhar observed prevalence of politics on the required structural reforms, saying Islamabad was reluctant to allow the provinces a front seat role in co-owning and co- managing the loss-making federally-owned power distribution companies. He argued that the business can only be turned around, even for such entities post privatization for which EOIs have now been issued, with significant provincial role, aligned with the devolutionary spirit of the last NFC Award and 18th Amendment. Elaborating, Tabish said that the government cannot efficiently run, for instance the Sukkur Electric Supply Company from Islamabad. He also mentioned unabated political interference on “transfers & postings” in the utility companies. In his tweeted insider account, he also mentioned the elusive “political consensus” on key sectoral issues such as the weighted average cost of local and imported gas, as another missing variable in the deal.

While touching upon the role of bureaucracy and the ‘mafia’ operating against structural reforms, he said that against the commonly held notion that the federal bureaucracy is a major impediment to reforms, he had the opportunity to work closely with some of the finest and most dedicated civil servants. People of integrity, extremely intelligent and diligent, putting in long hours (including weekends), often taking big decisions and risks without any assured support from the “system”.

Tabish said that it is not the job of the government to own and run businesses, but until the government is able to privatize the management or assets of DISCOs and GENCOs, it needs to support these government sector employees who have done far less damage to the economy than the well-known private sector rent seekers who extract their pound of flesh from the exchequer by exploiting their unfettered access to the corridor of power in Islamabad, even to this day.

On the role of media, he said the free-for-all media environment with an army of armchair “experts” pronouncing judgments on the decisions and motives of the public office holders, it can be a force for both good and bad. It is now a conventional wisdom in our country to judge all executive missteps with a 20/20 hindsight lens, as either borne out of ineptitude or corruption, he said. The unchecked sniper attacks from the government only contribute to further logjam in the decision-making process and an unwillingness to think and act “outside the box”.

Gauhar also described the fear of NAB in the public sector, as a reality. Those of us who spoke against it were hit with stinging official rebukes from the bureau, along with a threat to launch legal proceedings followed by lack of support from the government itself. Without the proposed constitutional cover to “good faith” mistakes, expecting the bureaucracy to move summaries containing out of box solutions will remain a pipe dream. Political corruption remains a serious issue and must be pursued, independently, across the board with actual convictions though the judicial process.

The former SAPM also highlighted the role played by some quarters regarding various energy related work streams. Their thrust was always on the big-picture of ‘national interest’ whether it involved awarding the RLNG pipeline project to the Russians instead of our own Sui gas companies; extending the Saindak mining lease to the same Chinese company without a competitive tender; closing a rather ‘light’ renegotiation deal with the lPPs; soft pedaling the Chinese on CPEC projects; promoting various hydro and nuclear project outside the “least cost & actual need criteria on strategic grounds, and so on. In Pakistan’s context, being “on the same page” is an imperative, and one would have to be naive to expect otherwise, but the new governance model is quite fascinating, he concluded.

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