Pakistan to shut malls, markets early in energy saving plan

ISLAMABAD, Jan 3 (Reuters) - Pakistan's government has ordered all malls and markets to close by 8:30 p.m. among other measures in a new energy conservation plan, the defence minister said on Tuesday, as the country grapples with an economic crisis.

Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves barely cover a month's worth of imports, most of which are accounted for by energy purchases from abroad, with funds expected under an International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme having been delayed.

Khawaja Asif told journalists the cabinet-approved measures to shut markets, including restaurants, aimed to save the cash-strapped country about 62 billion Pakistani rupees ($273 million).

He said additional immediate measures included shutting wedding halls by 10 p.m. daily. He added that some market representatives had pushed for longer hours, but the government decided that earlier closure was needed.

Asif also said Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had ordered all government departments to reduce electricity consumption by 30%.

The move comes as Pakistan struggles to quell default fears in domestic and international markets, with a $1.1 billion IMF bailout tranche stuck due to differences over the ninth programme review, which should have been completed in November.

Other critical multilateral and bilateral financing avenues are also linked to the IMF programme, which means the South Asian nation of 220 million people is hard-pressed to meet external financing needs of over $30 billion up until June 2023, including debt repayments and energy imports.

Pakistan's total liquid foreign exchange reserves stood at $11.7 billion - $5.8 billion with the central bank - as of late last month, having fallen 50% in 2022.

Asif said the energy conservation plan also included banning the production of energy inefficient bulbs and fans from February and July respectively.

He added Pakistan's peak summer electricity usage was 29,000 megawatts (MW) compared with 12,000 MW in the winter, mainly due to the use of fans in hotter months.

Half of the street lights across the country will remain switched off as a "symbolic" gesture, the minister said.

Most of Pakistan's electricity is produced using imported fossil fuels, including liquefied natural gas, prices of which have sky-rocketed over recent months.

The government has tried to stabilise the economy by containing imports and decades-high inflation. A fast depreciating currency has made imports more expensive while consumer prices saw a 25% year-on-year rise in the first half of the current fiscal year.

($1 = 226.7500 Pakistani rupees)

Reporting by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Mark Potter

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