Power cuts: is the load shared equally? Evidence from the Slums of Lahore

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hadia Majid is Assistant Professor Economics at Lahore University of Management Sciences. She may be reached at hadia.majid@lums.edu.pk

Pakistan has been in the grips of a major electricity crisis for near a decade. While its devastating effects have eased in more recent years, at its peak, some communities reported as little as only one hour of electricity in the day. And there was tremendous variation in the frequency and length of power outages across the country, particularly between rural and urban areas. With the Supreme Court ruling of June 2013 it became mandatory for regulatory authorities to ensure equal hours vis-à-vis power outages in rural and urban areas. However, despite the USAID real-time data monitoring program in place to oversee numerous key grid stations, there is yet to be complete compliance. It also remains unclear whether ‘equal’ simply translates into playing a game of averages.

Data indicates that while on average the gap between rural and urban outages may have closed, there continues to be substantial variation in electricity outages across different regions of the country. Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests that even within cities the length of power cuts varies depending on the area of residence. I explore the factors driving the variation in frequency and length of power cuts, as well as the consequences of and the coping methods used by households in case of electricity outages during a field exercise conducted in Lahore in 2015.

My field team conducted quantitative and qualitative community and household level surveys in a total of eight electrified slums in Lahore that varied in terms of their location – four were located in the centre of the city, with the rest located in peripheral areas.[1] Additionally, three of the slums were in an industrial area or near a gated community such as an army colony or judges/governmental officials’ residences, which I classify as ‘influential’ neighbourhoods, and were on the same electricity grid as them. It is worth noting here that, as expected, all of the slums near influential communities were in the centre of the city.

The primary hypotheses driving the fieldwork and the selection of slums was that while the slums themselves may be poor income areas, do their residents see an ostensible improvement in their electricity supply by virtue of being 1. in the centre of the city, and 2. close to a more ‘influential’ neighbourhood?

The short answer is, yes.

Figure 1 below depicts the average hours of electrical outage experienced by the residents of the slum at the peak of the past summer. While the peripheral slums saw an average of about an additional three hours of load-shedding when compared to those in the centre, within the centre or core of the city there was a mammoth difference of about eight hours depending on the status of the neighbourhood surrounding the slum.

Figure 1: Average Hours of Load-shedding


Clearly then it is the slums in non-influential areas, be they in the centre or the periphery of the city, that are bearing the brunt of the burden of the electricity short-fall. Additionally, I find that within the core, where grids are likely to have the greater load, it is the slums in non-influential neighbourhoods that see the disproportionate share of power outages – reporting longer hours, on average, of load-shedding that even the peripheral ones. 

Not only do the average hours of load-shedding vary depending on the location of the slum, but so do the households’ coping mechanisms – most households that live in slums located in periphery tend to simply wait for the electricity to be restored while UPS ownership is more common in centrally located slums. Curiously, despite the lower average number of hours of load-shedding in central slums, the dwellers in these communities report planning ahead more when compared to the residents of peripheral slums i.e. the use of candles, torches, emergency lights and fans etc. is higher in the former slum type. These disparities are likely driven by the difference in average household incomes between the two types of settlements.

Figure 2: Coping Mechanisms


The differences in hours of power cuts and the consequent coping mechanisms is reflected in the primary issues faced by households in the case of power breakdowns. Thus, I find that households in the periphery who generally face longer outages are less likely to report facing ‘no issues’. Moreover, since most such households typically tend to simply wait for the power to be restored, they report being unable to complete household chores more regularly than those in central slums.

Figure 3: Issues Faced


Similarly, peripheral households report water shortage issues caused by a lack of electricity with more than twice the frequency reported by centrally located households. Interestingly, despite facing fewer hours of load-shedding, households in central slums report lighting and cooling issues more often. And also seem more concerned about the effects of power breakdowns on particularly work productivity.

Overall, my findings indicate that the duration of power cuts is not even-handed. Rather, there is tremendous variation across slums depending on the location of the community both in terms of its distance from the centre as well as its proximity to influential neighbourhoods. This inequitable distribution in length of power outages clearly points at issues of injustice. At the same time, I find that the negative effects of longer hours of electricity outages are compounded by the lack of access to adequate alternate means of electricity such as UPS devices or even emergency lights or fans. And while the survey respondents typically tended to state problems in completing day-to-day household tasks as the primary issue faced in the case of power break-downs, sleep deprivation – and therefore lower on-the-job productivity – was cited by one in five of all surveyed households. This is especially revealing since while direct output losses at the firm level due to power outages have been studied, these indirect effects on worker efficiency because of problems faced at the home have not been carefully examined. Clearly then, the electricity crisis remains one of the biggest developmental hurdles currently faced by Pakistan both in terms of its effects on household welfare as well as its impact on firm output and therefore long-run economic growth.

[1] The fieldwork was funded by the LUMS Faculty Initiative Fund.


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