‘How will I pay?’: Steep power bills, rising inflation hit Pakistan’s poor

Millions of Pakistanis say they have been forced to ration the use of fans and other essential electrical items since the rise in tariffs.

People burn their electricity bills during a protest in Peshawar, Pakistan [File: Arshad Arbab/EPA]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Every morning, Irshad Bibi walks nearly 10km (6 miles) from her one-bedroom house in Mehrabadi, a low-income neighbourhood in Islamabad’s suburbs, hoping to find work.

Almost a year ago, Bibi quit her job as a housemaid to look after her unwell husband, who was afflicted with hepatitis-C. He passed away four months ago.

Since then, the 38-year-old mother of five children has no regular source of income.

“There are days my children and I go to sleep without anything in our stomach except water and maybe one piece of bread,” she told Al Jazeera.

“I live in a small room with a fan and a bulb, yet last month my [electricity] bill was more than 9,000 rupees ($30) when it never used to be more than 1,500 rupees ($5) before. How am I going to pay that?”

Bibi is among millions of Pakistanis facing the consequences of an unprecedented economic crisis in their country, forcing it to seek a $3bn financial bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in July.

Among the conditions laid out by the global lender for the package was a demand to remove the government’s subsidies on fuel and electricity, with the latter seeing a 26 percent hike in its price since.

Meanwhile, the value of the Pakistani rupee against the dollar is on a slide, dropping from 275 rupees in early July to 302 on Friday.

Government statistics say food inflation was at more than 38 percent in August and is likely to rise further this month due to the rise in electricity and fuel prices.

The government has categorically said prices will not be lowered as the effects of tough economic decisions taken since the IMF bailout become devastating for Pakistan’s poor.

Bibi said there are days when she gets temporary work which helps her earn 300-400 rupees a day, equivalent to less than two US dollars, but the opportunities are inconsistent.

“I am surviving so far because of charity from people. But with everything so expensive, how long can they continue helping me? How long will I have electricity? How long will I have this one room if I don’t pay the rent?” she asked.

‘Forced to ration use of fan’

Burhan Anwar, a 45-year-old electrician in Lahore, the country’s second largest city, said he accumulated a debt of more than 400,000 rupees ($1,300) this year due to the rising cost of living.

A father of six children, Anwar said he was forced to sell a second-hand car he bought in 2021 to make ends meet.

“The construction sector was booming at that time and that meant we always had work in Lahore or other cities such as Islamabad,” Anwar told Al Jazeera over the telephone.

However, since last year, he said, rising inflation and skyrocketing fuel prices compelled him to take all his children out of private schools and send them to cheaper schools run by the government.

“Work is nearly non-existent. I am the sole bread-earner in my family and we live in a small, two-bedroom rented home. Where I used to make 35,000 ($113) a month, I am not even making 12,000 ($38) now, while everything has become so expensive,” he said.

“You tell me: how do I pay my rent, pay for petrol, pay my utility bills, or pay school fees for all of my children? I had no choice but to take these steps.”

Anwar said he even considered buying solar panels to help offset the rising cost of electricity. But as demand for the panels also saw a steep rise, it became impossible for him to buy them.

“My electricity bill last month was close to 20,000 rupees ($58) when it used to be between 6,000-8,00 ($20 to $26). We are forced to ration the use of our fan. We sleep in one room and we switch off the fridge at night. I don’t have a TV in my house any more,” he said.

“And yet I don’t know how much longer can I keep asking for loans.”

‘Never been this difficult’

Fatima Hassan’s husband, a former factory manager in the United Arab Emirates, has been unemployed for the last two years.

“My husband was laid off. He has been without work since he returned to Pakistan. We were barely surviving on his savings and with my parents’ help. But if he remains unemployed by the end of this year, I will have to take my younger daughter out from school,” the 41-year-old told Al Jazeera.

Shopping for vegetables in a market in Islamabad’s Barakahu area, Hassan said it has been months since she fed her two children meat.

“In a weird way, I am glad about not having too much in my home. I only buy things that I have to use on the day. We are forced to keep the fridge switched off for seven to eight hours a day to keep our electricity bill low. And a lot of things in the refrigerator go bad. I’d rather have nothing there,” she said.

Hassan, who is also an asthma patient, said her last electricity bill was more than 22,000 ($72), an increase of more than 100 percent from the previous month. She said one of her biggest worries now was falling sick because their financial condition did not have space for an emergency, medical or otherwise.

“For the last few months, we count every penny that we spend in a week to plan for the week after. While our financial position hasn’t been great ever, it has never been this difficult,” she said.

As Pakistan sees protests breaking out in several cities against the electricity prices and general inflation, analysts say the rising cost of living has left low-income households increasingly vulnerable.

Economist Ammar Habib Khan told Al Jazeera the increase in the cost of power was eating away at the disposable income of poor households which have already seen their disposable income drop by more than 40 percent due to inflation.

“Households now have to make a choice between spending restricted budget on food, or on children’s education, and hence even something as essential as electricity has become a luxury,” said the Karachi-based economist.

Khan said the government should try to support poor households by reducing taxes in the short term as sales taxes and other government charges make up more than 30 percent of the total electricity tariff.

“There is no reason why the consumers need to be bridging the fiscal deficit of the government, which is a result of the government’s inefficiency and unabated spending,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera