In another reality, Abid Sher Ali, the minister of state for water and power is a role model. He is an angry young man with a lot of drive and, as his Twitter feed demonstrates, little restraint — an outlier on both counts when it comes to this administration. Sadly, Ali’s energies have not been expended in the right direction. Instead, he is doing much the same as what he did when out of power: Raising a ruckus.

Over the past several weeks, Ali has been on the attack, threatening two different provinces with power cuts. Accusing the Sindh government of defaulting on some 52 billion rupees, Ali’s ministry has clamped down on Karachi’s additional electric supply. But, if the Sindh government was unimpressed – provincial Information Minister Sharjeel Memon thought Ali was in it for the headlines – similar threats were greeted with fury in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In its defence, the Ministry for Water and Power can resort to little else: The Peshawar Electric Supply Company (Pesco) claimed line losses of 97 per cent across 11 power feeders in the province. The provincial government, for its part, refuses to believe Pesco (but whatever fraction of 97 per cent it does believe should be appalling enough).

Adding to the white noise is the fact that Ali and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan and his men are on the warpath, with not a single solution in sight. Ali alleges that PTI provincial ministers protect the power thieves and Pesco officials. Meanwhile, Pesco and the PTI are locked in their own mini-cycle of defaulting and defaming one another. And, just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, the youth wing of the Awami National Party barged in, warning it would shut down Punjab all by itself if electricity supply to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was disrupted.

Cynical sound bites from all sides are drowning out the question at hand: Can a state service provider discontinue services to specific areas? All things considered, it cannot. One wishes Ali well in pursuing power thieves but to sanction entire provinces is not only ill-advised, it may also be unconstitutional.

While the 18th Amendment has empowered the provinces in various respects, electricity remains very much a federal concern. The Constitution’s Fourth Schedule (Part II of the Federal Legislative Lists) says as much. The Constitution also provides that Ali cannot turn the tap off to whole parts of the federation that he is bound to supply. To do so would not only contravene the Fourth Schedule, it may potentially fall foul of a host of other constitutional provisions.

The one staring the centre in the face would be Article 25: Equality of citizens. Had Ali couched his wrath in more acceptable terms, had his ministry thought up a mechanism that prosecuted power thieves, individually, and had the current government not painted Pakistan in Punjabi and non-Punjabi hues, discrimination would be a lot harder to prove.

Unfortunately, the terms of the conversation have been aggressively parochial, and disciplining the provinces for ‘defaulting’ would seem little more than discrimination – a blanket penalty for the people of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – be they lawful consumers or hardened criminals.

When it comes to state service providers in foreign jurisdictions, we are told such problems are fixed by implementing the ‘least restrictive measure’ and case law determines as much. By doling out blackouts for everyone instead, Ali has skipped a few pages ahead.

Fans of a stronger centre, though, say there is plenty that the federal government is still empowered to do. The Ministry of Water and Power has every right to switch off the lights of power thieves, they say, especially when Pakistan remains so perpetually power-starved.

By that logic, Ali may want to turn those wire cutters on himself. According to a report by the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority, the prosperous Punjab leads the pack when it comes to electricity theft. A massive 87,180 cases were reported in the land of the five rivers, with just over 2,000 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and a mere 813 in Sindh. Balochistan reported only eight.

Ali may yet succeed in depriving the other provinces of electricity. But he will be wrong if he thinks constitutionality – or consistency – would play any part in the process. Better to refine the system than to wreck it.

— Asad Rahim Khan