An anecdote is often cited in political gatherings of different sorts. As it goes, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif once asked his courtiers as to which project should he start in order to become immortal in the memories of his countrymen? One of the courtiers replied, “Whatever steps you take should be concrete.” The PM grasped the idea and built the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway which was all “concrete.”
Though the anecdote is mentioned in a lighter vein, it speaks volumes about the PML-N leadership’s obsession with building costly road infrastructures, setting up mass transport systems and launching mega development projects. For example, the Punjab government has set up Metro Bus in Lahore and now it is working on similar projects in Islamabad and Multan at the estimated costs of Rs41.4 bn and Rs30 bn respectively. It also plans to launch a metro bus in Faisalabad. Besides, the provincial capital Lahore will have a 27.1-kilometer metro train line which will be completed with Chinese investment.
The PML-supporters terms these projects revolutionary whereas the critics oppose these on the ground that they should not be the priority of the government. Their biggest objection is that such mega projects consume huge chunks of development budgets and leave little amounts to be spent on provision of education and health facilities and poverty alleviation.
These voices have become louder after the passage of the Punjab budget early this month. The government terms it the biggest in the history of the province and says it has increased allocations for education, maintenance of law and order, poverty alleviation, development of Southern Punjab etc.
Besides, the government says the allocation for the Annual Development Plan (ADP) has also been increased from last budget’s Rs224 bn to Rs345 billion this year.
The question here is that will these budgetary allocations be meant for targeted groups or they will bode well for the general public also. No doubt the allocations for different sectors have been announced but the details about specific projects to be executed with this money are unknown. Who will define priority areas and ultimate beneficiaries of such projects is a question waiting to be answered.
Salman Abid, Punjab Head of Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO), believes the budgets are merely documents that define political parties and cannot be referred to throughout the year. One major reason for this is that changes in budgetary plans are made throughout the year.
He says the governments announce allocations for social sector development but unfortunately budgetary cuts are made and some of these funds are diverted to other sectors.
Talking to TNS, Salman says that another negative trend is that only block allocations are announced for different sectors and the total break-up of how these funds will be spent is not given.
Explaining his point, he says the government may announce Rs50 billion or so for health sector at the time of the budget without telling the people that half of the amount shall go to the staff in the form of salaries.
Salman agrees that urban transport is a major issue but the government must realise that it is not representative of only the three divisions of Lahore, Faisalabad and Gujranwala. He thinks the government could have established a reliable and inter-connected public transport system in Lahore by investing an amount far less than that spent on laying just a metro bus route.
He suggests that the government should focus on poverty reduction, fulfilment of international commitments and achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The indicators may not be as conspicuous as the public attention gained through execution of brick and mortar projects the end result will be good for the country.
Coming to the infrastructural development, there is disagreement on the options availed by the government. For example, a lot of proposals have been discussed over the past few years. There was talk about light rail, then there was a proposal for a mono-rail and now family the government has settled for a metro rail. At one time, the Transport Engineering and Planning Authority (TEPA) even suggested construction of a mono-rail track on Lahore Canal. An official in the transport department tells TNS that mono-rail project suited the city a lot and a construction company had offered to build its total infrastructure free of cost but that plan did not succeed. The decision to have a metro train was taken for the reason that China had agreed to make all the required investment, he adds.
Ali, a PML-Q worker, believes the proposal for an underground metro rail system proposed by the Pervez Elahi government was the best option for the city. “There was little or no need to acquire land from people and turn the congested parts of the city into ruins,” he says.
“It was far more useful than isolated routes as there were plans to interlink different underground routes and set up stations where passengers could disembark and board road transport vehicles.
Prof Dr Tanvir Iqbal Qayyum, ex-Chairman, Department of Transportation Engineering & Management, University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore, says that underground metro rail systems are options viable only for countries which have the required technology. “The idea was hard to execute in Lahore as there were no Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) in the country.”
He explains that the TBMs can drill tunnels without disrupting city life. These machines enter the ground from one point and can make circular tunnels at a safe distance from the surface. The circular rims of the machine are studded with diamonds which can cut the hardest of the rocks.
Under the present circumstances, Tanvir says mono rail is a good option as it is more environment-friendly than metro rail and costs less. Besides, its infrastructure takes lesser time to complete and it consumes almost one-third of the electricity required to run a metro train. In a country where electricity is an extremely rare commodity this fact must be kept in mind.
When asked as to what is the difference between the two, he says the mono rail runs on an elevated platform and its bogeys are affixed or clamped to single lines. The word ‘mono’ is used because of its dependence on single lines. Also, there is enough open space between the two lines which allow smoke to rise in the air. On the other hand, a metro train is larger in size and width and has to have a dedicated track which may take a lot of space. It is called metro as it is meant for metropolitan cities.
Tanvir believes the track of metro train in Lahore will be constructed both on ground as well as on elevated platforms because there are many areas on its route where road space is too narrow. This, he says, will ultimately lead to a substantial increase in the cost of the project.
“What I am not clear about so far is how the Chinese company shall recover its cost?” he says. “Will the passengers pay the actual ticket amount or the government will again announce a subsidy for them? If the latter happens, there will be a burden on the exchequer.”