ISLAMABAD/LAHORE/KARACHI - Protesters clashed with police and major cities were paralysed on Monday as thousands of people demonstrated across the country over severe gas shortages and price hikes.

Besides closure of CNG stations and public transport across the country, violent protest were held in big cities of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh.

Thousands of protestors including owners and employees of CNG stations, transporters, drivers and common citizens marched through the cities to record their protest against halt in gas supply and the government decision of increase in prices of gas and petroleum products.

The intensity and scale of protests forced the government to hold an emergency meeting with the representatives of the CNG associations and announced suspension of ban on filling public transport vehicles for 15 days, besides clarifying that there was no plan for closure of CNG stations during the current month.

Petroleum Minister Dr Asim had told the media on the other day that the gas shortage has reached to a point that the government will have to cut gas supply to CNG stations altogether and drastically cut the supply to industrial units in January so gas could be made available to other consumers.

On the other hand, the government amid yawning energy shortfalls has increased the gas price by 14 percent, besides making a record hike in the prices of POL products, especially petrol, bringing an added burden on the people already facing a double digit inflation. This has sparked the recent protests across the country, while opposition parties are setting in motion campaigns to force elections in 2012.

The protesters at Monday’s demonstrations were holding banners, placards and clubs and their hands and they chanted slogans against the federal government, minister for petroleum and natural resources, Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (Ogra) and Sui Northern Gas Company Limited (SNGCL). The enraged protestors blocked the highways and GT Roads for all kinds of traffic by burning tyres and placing big logs and stones to stop the flow of traffic.

Halt to the public transport created difficulties for students, public and private servants and minimum presence of employees was witnessed in offices as people failed to reach the destination. Taxi owners and rickshaw drivers took full advantage of the situation and overcharged the commuters and they had to pay up to 200 percent of the normal fares to reach the destinations.

Public transport was halted in the capital, where police used tear gas and sticks on a crowd of more than 1,000 people. Protesters carrying sticks burned tyres and chanted, “Down with government, stop suffocating the poor”, at the spot where a rally was held last month in which demonstrators set fire to armoured police vehicles. At the protest in Barakahu area of the capital, angry protestors also pelted stones at vehicles and smashed commercial hoardings installed at the roadside and at top of some buildings.

More than a dozen small protests were also held across the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where more than 600 CNG stations have been closed for an indefinite period. Protesters blocked the GT Road to all kinds of traffic.

Most natural gas stations were also closed in the Punjab under a partial strike. Queues snaked from petrol stations as cars stocked up on dwindling gas stocks. In the central city of Multan, up to 1,500 people, mostly transporters and CNG dealers, held a demonstration and blocked roads in protest.

In Faisalabad, where people are protesting against gas loadshedding to industries for eight days and to CNG stations for six days, labourers and citizens staged a protest at Sidhar bypass on Jhang Road and blocked the traffic. Labourers also organised protest rallies against gas stoppage in Small Industrial State and Khurarianwala and chanted slogans. The protesters also protested on Sargodha Road and GTS Chowk. The rickshaw drivers blocked the traffic by standing rickshaws on the road.

Feeling the heat of the protests, Secretary Petroleum Natural Resources Muhammad Ejaz Chaudhry held a meeting with Ghyas Paracha Chairman and representatives of All Pakistan CNG Association (APCNGA) here on Monday to address the concerns of the CNG sector.

Secretary Petroleum clarified to the APCNGA that the news about indefinite closure of CNG Sector was incorrect; however, CNG Stations would remain closed as per the mutually agreed Gas Load Management Programme. It was also informed that there was no proposal for closure of CNG stations during the month of January.

During the meeting it was decided that a high powered committee comprising of senior representatives of Finance Division, Petroleum ministry and Ogra would look into the issue of gas pricing and submit its report with in 4 days. It was also decided that the decision of Ogra regarding ban on filling of CNG in public transport vehicles would be suspended for 15 days and the public safety measures would be jointly monitored and ensured by Ogra and the Apcnga.

Petroleum Secretary said that CNG sector is an important stakeholder and it is expected of them that they will act responsibly in this crisis situation. APCNGA chairman assured that CNG association would cooperate in implementing the Gas Load Management Programme.

“The gap between demand and supply has been increasing because of severe cold and the company is unable to bridge it,” a senior official at the Sui Northern Gas Company said. Pakistan, which has a population of 174 million, has seen industry slump in the face of recession and years of al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked bombings.