In case the long lines of cars, buses and rickshaws snaking out of fuel stations didn’t give it away, Pakistan is facing a gas crisis. The reason: Pakistan’s demand for natural gas, and other forms of energy, has raced far ahead of supply.
There’s no denying that our use of natural gas for transport purposes is disproportionate. According to the Economic Survey 2010-2011, Pakistan is the largest user of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) in the world, surpassing countries such as Iran, Argentina and Brazil in the number of vehicles using gas as fuel. Currently, almost two-thirds of all cars and small commercial vehicles on our roads – 2.74 million of them, approximately – run on CNG fuel, according to the International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles. Pakistan also holds the record for the highest number of CNG stations.
Weaning ourselves off the fuel, therefore, will undoubtedly be an uphill task. In what ways will we be affected when the CNG sector is phased out?
People who invested in CNG conversion kits for their vehicles, often paying monetary amounts exceeding 100,000 rupees, may find themselves holding the wrong end of the stick. Public buses, too, were recently converted so as to be able to run on CNG. These people may get little return on their investment. CNG is also 40 per cent cheaper than petrol as a transport fuel, so the general operating cost of a vehicle will also increase. But on the other hand, consumers may benefit in more indirect ways — there will be more gas available for power generation, for instance.
And, in any case, perhaps not all consumers will suffer. In a recent meeting, the government floated the option of barring CNG as a fuel only for private vehicles of more than 800cc. Middle-income families using smaller cars may still be able to avail the cheaper fuel, as will vehicles for public transport.
Phasing out the industry could place a massive strain on the country’s foreign exchange reserves, already at a dangerously low level. According to Farida Rashid, president of the Islamabad Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the step could impose a strain of over a million dollars a day on our forex reserves. This is because, while CNG is a relatively cost-effective fuel, its alternatives are far more expensive. Phasing out the fuel would require an additional import of 250,000 tonnes of diesel and the same amount of petrol — approximately 4.3 million barrels per annum. The only means of averting this strain, according to Rashid, was to boost local production. This would require enhanced exploration, offering of incentives, and the resolution of disputes with private companies.
On the other hand, this means more gas for other industries — particularly for the fertiliser industry which uses gas as a raw material and for the power sector which, in Pakistan, is already in the doldrums.
Some draw attention to the fact that Pakistan’s decision to phase out the CNG sector comes at a time when the world is prioritising it as a fuel for vehicles, given that it is safer and more environmentally friendly. According to Ghiyas Abdullah Paracha, the central chairman of the Pakistan CNG Association, countries such as Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia have replaced LPG with CNG due to safety concerns. “This is to avoid pollution in cities. The world knows that only a healthy nation can build a country, but we have reverse-geared our policy,” he says. According to a World Bank Report, Pakistan is ranked third-worst in terms of air quality. Polluted air results in 21,751 premature deaths in Pakistan each year and overall environmental degradation costs the country six per cent of its Gross Domestic Product.
— Compiled from media reports
Back in the early 1990s — When I was new entry into the field of journalism I remember meeting a very senior government official in the foreign policy establishment of the country along with other fellow journalists. Back then, Pakistan had just re-entered the democratic experience and economic conditions were ostensibly not as bad as they now seemed to be. However, Indians had just embarked on the path of economic liberalization and the news about early success of the program was reaching Pakistani society. What this senior official said to us seemed prophetic now. As part of a discourse on Pak-India relations, he said that he dreaded the time when Pakistani middle class would envy Indian middle classes. My hindsight compels me to conclude that what the Pakistani government official said was right. The time when Pakistani middle classes will envy and copy Indian middle classes has arrived.
Last week the respected London-based magazine, The Economist, did a cover story on India. One interesting fact reported in the story is that Indians are now taller than they were in early 1990s when the Indian government started the policies of economic liberalization, “…For many Indians, a decade long boom has brought obvious gains. Some are physical: a study in the National Medical Journal of India last year, looking at Children among India’s wealthier population, found that at the age of 18 boys are 4.5 cm taller and 4 kg heavier than they were in 1992, when the economic reform just got going” reads the Economist. And who among the Pakistani would not like their young ones to be taller than they are? Being a father myself I can confess that each day starts with looking at your son sleeping in the cot and making guesses about the increase in height at this early stage of his life. Difficult to say how the people in Pakistan will react to this news that Indians are now taller than they were in 1990s (or before 1990s) and how their chauvinistic feeling (that they are fed with by the overly militarized state apparatus) will be affected if this news is reproduced in Pakistani media at a large scale. But one can have some sense about the popularity of Indian middle class ethos in Pakistani society by just looking at the scale of popularity of Bollywood movies in Pakistan. These movies reflect the middle class ethos of Indian society and the emerging culture of consumerism (the characteristic of consumerism has been identified as the main characteristic of middle class) in Indian society.
But this will be too simplistic a view of comparing Indian and Pakistani societies. Again comparing the upturn of Indian economy with the downturn of Pakistani economy will only produce a number of clichés and stereotypes that our media, now-a-days, is filled with. Let us discuss something different. A few months back I was astonished to the read the views of one of our leading ideologue, former Director General of ISI, General (Retd) Hameed Gul, who told a foreign newspaper that India was on the wrong side of history and therefore it would not be able to control the centrifugal forces in its society and hence there were no chances of India emerging as a great power in the coming decades. This is akin to other stereotypes about Indian society that we are regularly fed with. For instance, when we went to war with India, almost half a century ago, we were told (mostly through media) that Indians were shorter and thinner and therefore were unfit for fighting. This proved wrong when our army was met with six feet tall Indians in the battlefields. We are told that Indian society is divided into water-tight compartments of castes and the upper castes (which is smaller in number) will never allow the lower castes (which are large in number) to rise and become economically affluent. Traditional Pakistani writers saw lower castes as potential fifth columnists in Indian society which will rise against the Hindu upper caste dominated state at the centre. So in the traditional Pakistani scholarly works on India the lower castes are identified as centrifugal forces in Indian society. The events of past two decades have clearly shown that Indian society is transforming itself and lower castes are in the driving seat as far as Indian political system is concerned.
Two, apparently, unrelated developments in Indian politics have contributed heavily in broadening the base of Indian political system. First, are the economic liberalization policies of early 1990s and second is the policy of reservation of quotas in universities, government services and to some extent private sector for the backward classes of Indian society. These two developments gave rise to the emergence of lower caste middle class in the urban areas of Indian society. This lower caste middle class has shown a strong commitment to parliamentary democracy in the last 20 years as has been demonstrated by the voting patterns in parliamentary elections inIndia. Christophe Jafferelot, a French author, who has spent a life time studying Indian politics and sociology, has written in his latest work that all the lower caste put together constitute around 70 per cent of Indian society and in the past 20 years (following the emergence of Indian lower caste middle class) they have voted their fellow lower caste candidates and lower caste based political parties into parliament and state assemblies. This has resulted not only in taking the benefits of Indian economic progress to the backward classes and groups of Indian society but bringing these groups into the mainstream of Indian politics. Number of lower caste middle class people Jafferelot interviewed for his work showed strong commitment towards India’s parliamentary democracy “Insofar as it permitted the empowerment of the lower castes”.
I think nobody should deny the Pakistani state the right to carry out propaganda against India (till the time we are ready to shun our obsession with India as a perennial enemy). However the problem with this kind of propaganda is that at the end of the day, we are the only victims of this propaganda. Second problem is that this kind of thinking has stunted our mental growth and prevented us from learning from Indian experience. Surely this mindset has played no small role, over the years, in preventing us from broadening the base of our political system. Instead of accommodating more and more fringe groups into the mainstream of our politics, we have followed the programme of religiously, politically and socially excommunicating ethnic, religious groups and nationalities from our mainstream. This has stunted the growth of our political system. Perhaps the biggest feat of Indian political system is that it has grown broader and bigger by accommodating more and more groups into the mainstream. And we have been creating more fringe groups in each decade of our 60 years of history. The warning of history is not difficult to understand: if we don’t pay heed right now shortening of our system will not be measured in centimetres, but in miles.