SHAHBAZ Sharif’s dream metro bus finally kicked off on Sunday, the red of the long line of coaches complementing the Valentine mood.
The second weekend of February is when Lahoris would have their beloved Basant until a few years ago. Now colourful bunches of balloons greeted the launching party, which included the deputy prime minister of Turkey.
It was tempting enough for television journalists reporting from the spot to flaunt their own celebratory neckties in competition with the expectedly vibrant shades sported by our own evergreen Turk, the chief minister.
It was a real festive moment for the city, which has not quite been the same after the launch of the project. As the bus took off on its 27-kilometre journey, old objections were revived: how the money could have been better spent elsewhere. (The project according to unofficial, even at times unkind, estimates has cost Rs70 billion.)
The amount could have been used to set up universities, hospitals, or could have yielded the country the megawatts it so desperately needs. If this was a point people were ready to lend an ear to, quite clearly they had one eye fixed on the new Shahbaz invention.
While Lahore has had its share of initiatives in public transport over all these years, the new-look imparted to the city by all these bridges and underpasses built for the fast-track metro bus does create excitement.
The bridges are good carriers of popular aspirations. They conform to the general impression of development and modernisation. For long, Pakistani cities have wanted to match London and Paris; the stretch metro bus on the Ferozepur Road could well turn out to be their route to the much-craved progress. It is some kind of progress, at least.
Critics — mostly rival politicians — have dubbed the metro bus a waste, a drain on resources and an arbitrarily created monument to satisfy the desires of an absolute ruler. They are not wrong in pointing out that it is a gift lavished on a people who should have instead been allowed to make their own choices about what they wanted at this particular moment.
Transparent consultancy and involvement of citizen groups has never been a preferred option for rulers here and it remained so as Lahore takes this expensive plunge towards modernity.
Having said that, not all politicians have been as vocal in their dismissal of the metro bus as one would have expected the Pakistani model to be. Many, it appears, are waiting for the people’s jury to come up with its verdict. Along with the politicians this ‘waiting list’ includes other important observers such as economists and journalists.
Shahbaz Sharif’s bus is a costly project and it has been confronted with some alternative ideas, prominent among these, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s partly underground train system. But it has not drawn the kind of dire economic warnings Nawaz Sharif’s motorway generated in the mid-1990s.
This is sometimes explained in terms of the changed times where economists from outside the public sector are increasingly partnering with the government in its development endeavours and thus cannot be as independent in their thinking as they might have been previously.
There are a few economists, some of them aligned with the federal government, who have only mildly described the metro system as politically motivated — thereby conceding that Shahbaz was doing something that could win him votes.
The strongest argument against the bus so far is one which sees it as an act of favouritism at the cost of other parts of Punjab. This is the point PPP and PML-Q leaders highlighted in their public meetings in Punjab, which coincided with the launch in Lahore.
Shahbaz has been trying to combat this attack by promising similar transport systems for other cities, ‘if he was given an opportunity’. The truth is that his party, his family actually, has had plenty of time and opportunity since the 1980s to do for others what they have been accused of doing for Lahore. Their bias for the city is all too visible and is a source of embarrassment for some Lahore-dwellers.
Even if this favourite’s embarrassment is to lie concealed amid all these official celebrations and public expectations, a total disregard for the cultural argument does play the spoiler here. There has been some criticism of the cultural impact of the bridges that have come up for the bus, but this is one of the weaker arguments, considering the space it has been given in the debate surrounding the venture.
This is sad for a city which prides itself on its heritage and which has been promised a status equal to Paris or London — towns more famous for their cultural offerings than their buses.
It was a love for the old etiquette and old culture that made some Lahoris hope the Punjab rulers might finally show greater hospitality and invite to the opening of the metro bus a guest who happened to be in the city. Some television channels even wondered if President Asif Ali Zardari, camped in the new and reportedly palatial Bilawal House in Lahore, will make it to the launch as a surprise guest.
Instead, perhaps inspired by the presence of President Zardari and party chairman Bilawal Zardari, the PPP’s provincial leadership was drawn to the young striking doctors who threatened to mark the arrival of the bus with a protest demonstration.
The doctors were brutally dealt with. One PPP member of the Punjab Assembly, also beaten up with the doctors, managed to make a bandaged appearance. The party’s provincial chief did at long last turn up to show solidarity with the strikers.
Back at the ceremony, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif did get to recite his pet poem that decries the ‘Zar’ factor in the country’s affairs —– at the expense of an audience that could do with a verse change. He is obviously too busy building bridges to find time for such literary pursuits.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.