Countrywide protests against extremely costly electricity have erupted in Pakistan during the past few weeks. The protest wave started in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where students, workers, small traders, intellectuals, political activists and others organised large-scale public protests in various cities. This wave has now swept a nation that was already on the brink of an explosion.
Protests and complete shutdowns of shops and transport were observed in Muzaffarabad and other adjoining cities on 31 August, while Rawlakot, Mirpur, Kotli, Bagh and many other cities will see a complete strike today. In previous weeks, huge protests have been held in all these cities and there is a campaign for a general boycott of paying electricity charges, which is being considered as the beginning of a civil disobedience movement.
More protests and strikes are being planned for the coming weeks through Awami Action Committees, which sprung up in dozens of cities in a movement two years ago and have led successful protests for government subsidies of wheat flour and other essential items.
Comrades of the IMT in Kashmir have played a leading role in these committees since the beginning, involved in organising the campaign from a village to a district level, and leading huge rallies for flour subsidies.
Against IMF punishment and government swindling
From Kashmir, the protest wave spread to Pakistan, where small-to-medium-scale protests are being held on a daily basis across the country, especially in the provinces of Punjab and Pashtunkhwa. In some cities of Pashtunkhwa, like Bannu, Batkhela, Barikot, Swabi and others, large-scale protests have also been held in recent days.
The main demand of the protestors is to reduce electricity prices, which have risen sharply this month due to general inflation, resulting from the global capitalist crisis, exacerbated by the immense profiteering of private power companies. Meanwhile, the government has also imposed huge taxes on usage of electricity, per the demands of the IMF.
In Pakistan, governments always give relief to the rich by not imposing any direct taxes on income or wealth, instead imposing indirect taxes on electricity, fuel, medicines and daily use items including food, to meet their revenue targets. This policy is always supported by the IMF and World Bank.
This means that the working class and the rich have to pay the same amount of tax on usage of electricity, fuel or food, with no extra taxes on the wealth or income of the filthy rich. This loot and plunder by the ruling class and bloodthirsty financial institutions like the IMF means the working masses now have to sacrifice meals, essential medicines and the education of their children just to pay their monthly electricity bill.
Every electricity bill includes not only the price of power but also various unrelated taxes to rob the poor of their meagre earnings and fill the coffers of the state and imperialist financial institutions.
Adding insult to injury, the elite and most industrialists across the country are involved in electricity theft. They use bribes, political influence, coercion and other tactics to get electricity for their businesses and luxury homes free of charge. The cost of this theft is shifted to the working class by the electricity department and the government, which ends up doubling or tripling the monthly electricity bill for ordinary consumers. In other words, the workers have to directly pay for the electricity used by the rich.
In recent weeks, many suicides and heart failures have been reported across the country after some consumers from the working class saw their monthly electricity bill reach hundreds of thousands rupees, from just a few hundred rupees in previous months. Apart from this, millions of households have already reduced their electricity usage by switching off fans and other essential items in sweltering heat of more than 50 degrees celsius, just to avoid high utility bills.
Moreover, long power cuts of 10 to 12 hours daily in working-class areas have also become routine, due to infrastructural problems and profiteering by the power-producing companies. But now all this has reached a boiling point, and protestors are campaigning for a boycott of the payment of utility bills until their demands are met.
The government is very much afraid of the rising public anger against costly electricity and also against the generalised economic hardships and crises faced by the masses. Already, the year-on-year monthly inflation has officially peaked at around 38 percent, while for many food items it has reached up to 130 percent.
Moreover, the currency is in freefall. It has depreciated more than 100 percent in the last two years, and is expected to depreciate another 100 percent in the next one year. In fact, the country is on the verge of bankruptcy and the whole economy is crashing at a level never seen before, while the state and imperialist institutions like IMF are using every means to extract the last drop of blood from the working class.
In these protests, we see initial signs of a mass movement. The masses have lost all hope in all political parties in the country, and are coming out themselves to protest against unprecedented price hikes, inflation, unemployment and economic crisis as a whole.
The protest movement has the support of the overwhelming majority of the working masses, but those mostly engaged in active protests belong to the petty-bourgeoisie, intelligentsia and other middle-class layers, with shopkeepers’ associations and the lawyers’ bar association assuming a leading position at the moment.
On 2 September, there was a complete shutdown strike by shopkeepers in many cities across the country, including Lahore. Most of the shopkeepers and traders were involved in this protest over inflation and the electricity price hike.
Interestingly, these layers of society have always supported the state and the ruling class, but now the severity of the crises is even pushing them into protests. The organised workers are keen to join and lead the public protests, but they are being held back by their union leaderships who have generally distanced themselves from these protests, resulting in petty-bourgeois elements taking the lead. But the situation can change in the coming period as the protest movement takes its next steps.
The current government is a caretaker, set up with the backing of army generals who are preparing for the next general elections. This unelected government is extremely weak and unstable but still imposing new taxes and other harsh economic measures on the masses.
The earlier Sharif-led government, in coalition with PPP, JUI(F) and a dozen other parties completed its term last month in August and is planning to return after the next general elections. But all political parties have lost support among the masses and next elections are being viewed as a farce. In this situation, strikes and protests across the country are a huge step forward and can escalate towards a mass movement against the ruling class.
Solidarity and struggle! Make the rich pay!
In this situation, the government is afraid of using repression against the masses because it can lead to sharpening of public anger in an already volatile situation, so it has resorted to other tactics, like deflecting the public anger towards electricity workers and holding them responsible for the situation. The government also has another motive for doing this, and that is to pave the way for massive privatisation of the electricity department, power plants and distribution companies, including laying off thousands of electricity workers.
That is why the Red Workers’ Front is campaigning among the electricity workers to exert pressure on their union leaderships to extend solidarity to the protesting masses, and to explain to them the real causes behind the rising costs of electricity.
In this regard the RWF, has recently organised a protest in which representatives of electricity workers in Lahore extended complete solidarity with the protest movement. The RWF is also opening discussion in other workers’ unions and associations to take an active part in these protests, because it is only through the organised working class that the protest movement can advance, especially in the large urban centres.
The Red Workers’ Front fully supports the protesting masses and presents the following transitional demands:
- Private power companies should immediately be nationalised without compensation and put under democratic workers’ control so that cheap electricity can be provided to the masses.
- The tax burden of the IMF programme should be shifted to the capitalist class, as these loans were neither taken by the working masses nor spent on them.
- Small power consumers and peasants should be provided with free electricity, paid for through the expropriated wealth of the capitalist parasites.
- Electricity subsidies given to parasitic bureaucrats at the top of the state, the military establishment, and big industrialists should immediately be withdrawn and all the pending bills should immediately be recovered from them.
- No electricity departments nor any public utility should be privatised. Workforce shortages should immediately be covered through new permanent recruitments. Electricity workers should be provided all the necessary means required for workplace safety, to put an end to the 100 deaths suffered per year in their sector.