Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz’s announcement of free electricity for the consumers whose bills are less than or up to 100 units a month, is appropriate but it puts question marks on the fiscal wisdom of the government. Hardly two weeks ago, the Punjab government passed the budget for 2022-23 in which no such allocations were set aside, but now the chief minister came up with the announcement without consulting his cabinet or even the house of the elected members. The government plans to give relief to nine million lifeline consumers, which make up about half of the population of the province. The chief minister announced the decision at a press conference, where he bragged about bypassing the cabinet and putting aside the warnings that the relief package may come under the National Accountability Bureau’s scrutiny. By the time of writing this editorial on Tuesday evening, the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the Election Commission of Pakistan had yet to announce any action on the announcement as the court had warned the chief minister against influencing by-elections for 20 provincial constituencies for which polling will be held on July 17. The Punjab government has allocated Rs100 billion for the relief package, without explaining where it will get the money for the programme. The consumers whose bill has been less than or up to 100 units in the last six months are eligible to avail the benefits of the programme.
Other than legal, and bad fiscal planning factors, the relief package is, no doubt, the largest relief package in the history of Pakistan. The move is significant given the circumstances that the federal government has announced power hike rates from July 1. The relief package will persuade more and more power consumers to turn to less power unit consumption, which will help the government save electricity. The uninterrupted provision of electricity has become the biggest challenge for the government as the LNG-fired power stations have almost come to a standstill after the international markets saw an influx of unusual buyers of the commodity from the European Union who have been experiencing the disruption of the fuel supplies in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war. The prices of petroleum products have unusually been high for over a year after the world has started returning to normalcy from the pandemic-related lockdowns. The government is now encouraging consumers to turn to solar panels, which is also a good step. The government must plan permanent solutions to resolve the power-related problems.