Metro bus politics

Updated June 08, 2015


The writer is a freelance columnist.
The writer is a freelance columnist.

Considered a fact of life in big cities elsewhere, mass transit projects such as the Bus Rapid Transit system have become a source of political polarisation in Pakistan. The arguments, as presented by the more reasonable sorts on both sides of the fence, are as follows:

Those reasonable people in favour of a BRT argue that Pakistan’s cities require infrastructure upgrades if they’re going to attract high-productivity investment, and subsequently serve as engines of economic growth. There need to be efforts made to link labour with employers, to reduce transaction costs, and costs of production. A mass transit project, such as a metro bus, is perfectly suited to resolve mobility issues faced in cities governed by states with otherwise low levels of fiscal and administrative capacity.

Read: PM inaugurates Metro Bus project: 'This is a changing Pakistan'

On the other end, the (few) reasonable naysayers argue that a large number of regular buses can be plied on these routes for a fraction of the cost, with a much smaller subsidy bill, giving the government more freedom to spend on essential services like health and education.

From what little I’ve seen, lessons from other cities and existing research conducted by think tanks and planning experts the world over shows that mass transit projects are necessary for cities of a size we have here in Pakistan. Regular buses add to traffic congestion, and a whole host of complementary problems that end up creating negative externalities in the long run. Thus the logic behind investing in mass transit solutions is fairly sound, and the government appears to be on the right track.

Nonetheless, there is a need to uncover and analyse the rationale adopted by certain governments (led by particular political parties) in prioritising their development spending. With the PML-N, it’s now fairly apparent: in late 2011, when the PTI first started making a serious dent in what had been till then a fairly pliant electorate in urban Punjab, the PML-N was forced into some sort of action.

At that point in time there were two possible options available — the first was to match the PTI’s populism by holding a few large rallies, create their own young voter identity, and gain points for style. They tried this, and failed pretty miserably. A few medium-sized rallies and earnest adverts later, they must’ve realised they couldn’t match the PTI’s crowd-pulling ability. People go to a PTI rally because it’s the best possible thing in its category. Trying to emulate that just seemed contrived and a bit desperate.

The logic behind investing in mass transit solutions is sound but the rationale adopted by governments should be analysed.

The second option was to demonstrate their ability to deliver. Hence a large infrastructure project, such as the Lahore metro bus, came on to the scene as the perfect show-and-tell device.

Simply put, metro bus mania is successful because it has political cache. It serves a particular political and demonstrative function, which, frankly speaking, reform efforts in health, education, water and sanitation, and other banal (though necessary) areas can’t fulfil. People can see it, take a ride in it, and tell their friends and family just how close it is to something from the ‘West’.

Also read: It’s now Pakistan Metro Bus Service

The PML-N, to its credit, understands its home turf better than other parties. They now know that the aspirational quality of its voter, and the demonstrative ability of its hometown, is enough to swing most of the province. A voter sitting in a smaller city in Punjab can see what’s happening in Lahore, and the justifiable bitterness he may feel at seeing all the good stuff so far away, actually comes from deep-seated aspiration. They want to be there. Or they want here to look like that.

This is the kind of electorate where big-bang, high-visibility projects become most useful. So in the run-up to May 2013, the metro bus was used as an election promise — ‘vote for us, we’ll give you one too’. So far, the promise seems to be coming good. In other words, the metro bus, or even underpasses and flyovers, are a symptom of Punjab’s political calculus, as it exists right now. It is part of the grease that makes the province function.

Rational choice theory tells us the only thing politicians care about anywhere in the world is to stay in office. They will do whatever it takes to secure another term, and they quite often push all existing boundaries of good sense and legality. Hence, pork-barrelling, granting favours to one lobby or another, selling political access, giving banks bailouts, throwing subsidies at agriculture or some particular industry, are all strategies practised by incumbents in democracies as diverse as the US, Brazil, and India.

At nearly every point in time, these election-winning strategies rarely coincide with the most objectively optimal and welfare-enhancing combination of spending. Abstractly speaking, spending on education at point X in time is ‘objectively’ better than spending on an eight-lane highway. Yet the latter is still undertaken because that’s the cost of the political system. History tells us that at some point in the future, the difference between an election-winning calculus and what is considered the general welfare may become very small. At least this is what has happened in more mature democracies. Till such time, however, such political costs have to be repeatedly incurred.

The metro bus is thus a necessity in multiple ways. It is a necessity for cities aspiring to harness the economic advantages of urban density, by investing in mass transit solutions. And it is a political economy necessity, because it serves a particular function for political incumbents seeking to impress their voters and win another term. Either way, it appears to have made a permanent place for itself on both the urban landscape and the political landscape of the country.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2015

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