THE latest disclosure by a department of the Punjab government that a secrecy clause in the loan agreement for the Orange Line train being built in Lahore prevents the release of the terms of the loan is serious cause for concern. The disclosure was made by the Punjab Information Commission to the Lahore High Court recently, and if is true it raises serious questions about the legality of the loan agreement in the first place. In Pakistan, all public loans to be repaid with public funds need to be disclosed since there is an abiding public interest in the terms of agreement. If it is true that the government of Punjab, with backing from the centre, has entered into a loan agreement with the Chinese EXIM bank for construction of the rail project containing a clause that requires the terms of the loan agreement and repayment obligations to be kept secret, then the issue needs to be scrutinised and discussed to determine whether or not it is legal.
Many things about the Lahore Orange Line rail project are disturbing, including the failure to carry out a proper environmental impact assessment, as well as confusion over whether or not it is part of the CPEC bouquet of projects. Now we add another item to the list: the terms of the loan agreement through which the project is being financed. The Punjab government needs to make a more proactive effort to address the serious issues that are coming to engulf the project; denying access to records of decisions as well as terms of financing does little more than buy a little more time. In due course, all these questions will require a response to clear doubts, and it is better that the answers come earlier rather than later to avoid having to sink more money into the project. Transparency is an important pillar in government operations in Pakistan. Shoving it aside will only result in stoking the controversy further.
Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2016