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Pakistan has decided to revert to an official work week of five days from six under an energy conservation plan as the nation suffered from a worsening energy crisis that has led to prolonged power cuts and soaring fuel prices.
The plan was passed by the newly formed coalition government’s cabinet on Tuesday, including several austerity measures to reduce the use of fuel and energy.
The move comes as Pakistan faces a severe energy crisis that has led to prolonged power cuts, skyrocketing prices of fuel and rising cost of living while the economy is badly hit and the currency falls to record lows. The country’s power generation is in deficit in the face of increased demand during hot summer months that saw a deadly heatwave.
“We are facing a severe crisis... We desperately need to take energy conservation measures. We need to tap on every option to save on energy,” information minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said at a press conference on Tuesday announcing the measures.
The move to revert to a five-day work week comes after the country’s new prime minister Shehbaz Sharif increased the official week for government employees to six days in April with only Sunday as a day off. Mr Sharif said he aimed to increase productivity.
However, now the country is also exploring ways to let people work from home on Fridays and early closure of commercial markets to reduce burden on fuel stocks.
Along with reduced work days, the cabinet has also approved slashing the petrol allowance given to government officials and cabinet members by 40 per cent as outrage in the country grew after petrol prices rose by 40 per cent or Rs 60 per litre in a week.
It has also approved “a complete ban on unnecessary foreign visits by government officials and ministers”, Ms Aurangzeb announced. “Only obligatory visits and important bilateral visits will be allowed once cleared by the relevant committee.”
This ban would include any visits for seeking medical treatment abroad.
There is also a ban on any new purchase of office equipment and supplies, including any new vehicles for government offices and their allied departments.
The government also aims to reduce the overall consumption of utilities by 10 per cent and has restricted lunches, dinners and high teas at offices.
The measures come as anger grows in Pakistan over power cuts lasting as long as eight hours in certain areas while a record-setting heatwave saw mercury rising up to 50C.
Ms Aurangzeb said there was currently a 4,600 MW gap between supply and demand, with supply at 21,000 MW and demand at 25,600 MW.
These moves to curb government spending can be necessary for the larger economic crisis but only to a certain extent, said experts, who said they serve the larger goal of pacifying angry citizens reeling under inflation and keeping a check on government employees living extravagantly.
“I think these austerity measures will at least give one outlook for the public because the public doesn’t want the government to be extravagant at this time when there is a bell-tightening for everyone,” Dr Qamar Cheema, a strategic and political analyst based in Islamabad told The Independent.
Soaring prices of fuel around the world – sparked by the Ukraine-Russia conflict – have put pressure on the country’s external account.
Pakistan is facing double-digit inflation and a balance of payments crisis with forex reserves falling below $10bn, just enough for around 45 days of imports.
The Pakistani rupee hit a historic low of Rs 200 against the US dollar as the country negotiates a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund and other nations to keep its economy afloat and avert a default.
The Sharif government took over power from the previous Imran Khan administration after the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief was ousted through a no-confidence motion surrounding allegations of mismanagement of the economy and rising inflation.
The coalition government of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has roundly blamed Mr Khan’s administration for economic hardships.
Mr Khan, in turn, has ramped up attacks against the government alleging poor governance and demanding fresh elections.
Mr Khan alleges he lost power due to a “foreign conspiracy” because he wanted to buy fuel from Russia that is offered in cheaper prices, of which neighbouring India has been a beneficiary.