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.

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Comments are closed.

Comments (7)

Tariq
February 12, 2013 7:06 pm
Good to see the inauguration of the Fast Track Metro in Lahore. It would be even better when they will start the first UNDERGROUND project in the country!
M K Sufi
February 12, 2013 10:40 am
Nothing in this world is free. In the developed countries tax is about 40 %. In our part of the world we want everything without paying for it. People who are talking about high cost, have they ever calculated the transport cost an individual has to bear apart from the inconvenience and time wasted. Because of increase in cars and motor cycles the traffic on the roads has increased. Widening of roads is not the solution. Dubai introduced mono train service. Major countries of the world have efficient public transport system. Good communication system is important for the socio-economic progress. It is very difficult to accept a change. When the motorway project was started, there was a lot of hue and cry. Yellow cab was introduced it was mismanaged. Now when this fast track bus service has been introduced, most of beneficiaries of this convenience have joined in with politicians to undermine the project. One has to have a futuristic vision. I have been driving for over 4 decades. I would like to use such a system. I think in terms of expense of running and maintaing a car, the indicipline traffic on the road. Keeping a driver is getting to be an expensive business. Lahore is a very big city now. A good public system was required. The facility will be extended to other cities. Islamabad the Capital of the Country neither has a railway station worth its importance as a capital nor a bus system. The people who are against this bus service, have they ever travelled in the the buses within the cities and inter cities. On the long routes, Daewoo is providing service of international standard. I know people who drive luxury cars, using Daewoo to travel between Lahore and Islamabad. I look to the day when Mian brothers come in power, maybe they will do something for country in general and particularly Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Basically the middle class has a feudal mind set, they would not like to travel with a worker. In real life we do not treat our domestic help as human beings. A middle class person can be identified with a cell in hand, leased car and an attitude. All success to the recently introduced BUS SERVICE. Concluding what has the party in power given the people, crises, corruption, nepotism. No gas, no petrol and shortly there will be no water. Shamelessly the President has been gifted a Palace, I have not seen, read or heard anything about the deal. This is perhaps first in the history that a President has been given such an expensive gift. We talk about reforming the Election Commissions. Normal protocol is a that the gift received in capacity as the President, Prime Minister or other government functionaries is purchased, after assessing its market value.
Ch Farooq
February 12, 2013 9:00 am
This is a development project not only for Lahorites but for all Pakistanis, we must celebrate on development project taking place in any part of our country. Its not fair to relate such projects with Individuals, rather we should appreciate efforts made toward progress and development. Critics spoke bad about motorway project but this project too proved to be quite beneficial later on, not only that but it became a benchmark for our road & infrastructure projects to follow. In the same manner, metro bus project would help in reducing burden on roads and traffic congession would impove. I hope other cities and provinces would follow Punjab Govt. We must realize transportation is a major problem in our cities and we are lagging behind the countries not much developed in this segment of social sector.
vijay
February 12, 2013 8:11 am
forgot to add that India is the best example for such things, be it building subways, bridges, mining etc etc
vijay
February 12, 2013 8:09 am
There is always money in either construction or destruction for politicians.
Krishna
February 12, 2013 5:32 am
I think for any country the backbone of the economy is its major cities for which again the backbone is its city-infrastructure. The infrastructure (roads, bridges, mass transport, sea ports, airports etc) in cities of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka is pathetic and we are at least 300 years backward compared to the west. We can't expect a decent economic growth without properly investing in transport-infrastructure. It is not proper to play politics with a key infrastructure project like Lahore metro bus project which should have been done 30 years back. I see the same phenomenon in India also where opposition parties play politics just for the sake of politics but not in the interest of the nation. I think the benefits of lahore metro bus project is invisible right now but people will appreciate the benefits 10 years down the line. I think we need many more projects like these in cities like Dhaka, Bangalore, chennai, new delhi, Hyderabad (India), Colombo, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Karachi...
Fayzee
February 12, 2013 8:59 am
An article with a sour taste!! A milestone development has been achieved and we should be proud for that and WE ARE. Consider the length of the project, in just 10 months it has been achieved. Its remarkable. The unofficial estimated cost of the project has also been exaggerated, officially it is Rs. 30 billion. And yes, it would had been more that Rs.100 billion, had it been done by someone else. The writer mentions "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". If one votes due to projects like this when he/she is pleased with something. And if people feel delighted for this splendid Metro Project (the writer doesn?t like to mention the name of the project either) and vote for the owner of this project, then what else do we need? We need more and more projects for the development of our beloved Pakistan. There are governments in other parts of Pakistan as well, what have they done? Karachi needs a project four times bigger, but its Mass Transit Project is in the deadlocks since decades, although the same party is in office for the last three decades. In the end I would like to say "More bhai more" and not "Bus bhai bus".
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