Many project establishments, privatisation endeavours and promotions of bureaucrats have been reversed/annulled/cancelled by courts simply because the government of the day chose to ignore following the laid down procedures. This has led to shying away of prospective investors because they fear that matters will go to litigation and reversed by the courts. The reported bypassing of the Planning Commission by the Punjab government in implementing key projects has been much in the news after the PML-N formed a government in the centre as well as in the Punjab. The latest example is that of the 169 billion rupee 27-km-long Lahore Orange Line Metro Train, a project signed during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pakistan, which did not, as per procedural requirement of projects with an estimated cost greater than 300 million rupees, have a feasibility study that included impact and outcomes, performance indicators, deliverables and stakeholder consultations. While funding from multilaterals as well as Western bilaterals require feasibility studies that include these elements the same is not true for China; but significantly it is required for Pakistan as per our own procedures.
No one can support red-tapism which arguably remains a major impediment to productive activity in this country, however, contempt for our own procedures followed by the failure of our bureaucracy to take a stand against those violating procedures and instead rubber stamp such violations can hardly be supported. No one is arguing against not changing cumbersome procedures that are obsolete but delays in that regard need to be dealt with in a timely fashion. More than a month ago Federal Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in an interview to Aaj News stated that the government is looking into changing the PPRA rules with respect to government-to-government deals and yet to-date there is no evidence that this exercise has advanced forward.
The Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has been consistently accused of prioritising projects that are challenged by opposition parties; for example, the billions of rupees spent on Metrobus have disabled the provincial government from allocating sufficient funds to ensure clean drinking water to water-deficient slums in major Punjab cities, while the Islamabad-Rawalpindi Metrobus with 50-50 funding by the Punjab and federal governments has disabled the centre from extending funding to the National Action Plan. However, the Sharifs’ supporters correctly argue that in a democracy the ruling party does have the prerogative to identify projects and in the event that the general public does not support any project’s priority they can de-seat the party in the next general elections. But what about government-to-government projects for after all the PML-N at the centre represents the interests of the entire country and not just of one province.
The federal government has quite successfully linked any opposition to any of the projects that are part of the $46 billion Chinese investment package to something that militates against the interests of Pakistan. Be that as it may, our opposition parties have expressed concerns over some China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects which are being seen as being inordinately tilted in favour of the Punjab, notably the road route linking China and Pakistan, compelling the Prime Minister to call a second meeting of the leadership of all parliamentary political parties at the Prime Minister’s House with the objective of assuring them that this is not the case. Secrecy in commercial/infrastructure contracts, not taking the opposition on board thereby widening the trust deficit with the provinces and flouting our own procedures, has been the hallmark of the PML-N government in its third tenure. This needs to change and the way forward is to use parliament as the forum to ease opposition concerns, placing all memoranda of understanding signed under the CPEC on the websites of relevant ministries as infrastructure projects can hardly be defined as state secrets, and change the procedures if they are impeding development.