Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Rental Power Plants: Have the lessons been learned?

The Supreme Court verdict on the Rental Power Plants (RPPs) raises a number of important issues regarding Pakistan's state institutions.

The verdict reminds us that the Supreme Court remains one of the few functioning state institutions committed to genuine reform of the existing political order. Whether or not one agrees with its final verdicts, there is no denying the urgency that the Supreme Court displays in hearing as many cases as possible. Furthermore, there is no question regarding the crucial nature of the cases that the Supreme Court takes on. From the Prime Minister's contempt of court case to the Mehran Bank case, the stakes are high and the final verdicts can have serious implications on the current political order.

The RPP verdict effectively strikes at the heart of one of the major problems in Pakistan's state machinery. Politicians and bureaucrats have a tendency to try and reinvent the wheel when it comes to solving many infrastructure problems. This stems from the need of the ruling government - whether it be military or democratic - to put their personal stamp on highly visible projects and market themselves as saviours of society. In this particular case, there already existed sufficient electricity generating potential before the introduction of RPPs. Therefore, the RPPs represent wasted public resources that could have been spent on repairing and not reinventing the wheel.

The RPP verdict also touches on whether infrastructure solutions should be for the short-term or the long-term. By declaring the RPP contracts void, the Supreme Court is sending a strong message that the government should focus on long-term solutions. Regardless of whether or not the RPPs would have been ultimately successful in providing for the electricity needs of the population, substantial work remains in revamping and revitalizing the existing power infrastructure. Such reform must take precedence over reactionary power generation schemes like RPPs, which promise only short-term relief.

Which brings us to the state institutions that work alongside the Supreme Court.

For a democratic system to not simply exist but to also deliver results, consistent pressure must be applied on all state institutions. Only then will they mature and only then will democracy deliver results. But relying on the Supreme Court to settle each and every national matter takes the burden off the other state institutions to do much of anything. For example, the job of holding the RPPs accountable could have just as easily been performed by a parliamentary committee.

Relying on the courts to deliver a verdict can also give the false impression that justice has been served when the successful verdict finally arrives. However, getting such a verdict is only half the battle because the verdict serves no purpose if it isn't used to prosecute the accused. The courts can only interpret the law but they can't implement the law by prosecuting criminals. That job falls on institutions like the National Accountability Bureau and the Ministry of Interior.

In short, the verdict is in but the work has just begun.

The real success of the RPP case should be measured by whether the people implicated in the verdict are successfully prosecuted. It should be measured by whether or not state institutions finally understand the importance of long-term infrastructure reform. It should be measured by whether or not politicians finally stop initiating projects that bear their personal stamp and start initiating ones that ease a growing population's load-shedding misery.

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