KARACHI: Most speakers at a seminar held on Thursday expressed serious concern over the way the government was handling affairs of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), contending that it neither properly negotiated the CPEC projects in the country’s interests, nor did it take relevant stakeholders on board before or after striking deals.

They also complained that details of the CEPC project, which apparently lacked an overall feasibility report, were being kept secret whereas the government was yet to allay fears of local businessmen and manufacturers — particularly those of small and medium-sized enterprises — facing threat due to the project.

Titled ‘CPEC — Prospects, Challenges and Way Forward’, the programme was held at the National Institute of Management, Karachi.

The four-hour long programme provided the audience with ample evidence that the federal government has so far completely ignored the business communities as well as locals in Gwadar in relation to the project and there is a dire need for winning their trust and getting them on the CPEC bandwagon.

This was indicated by completely divergent views presented during the seminar by those who are either involved in the project’s execution, monitoring it or who have a big stake in it.

“I fully support CPEC provided we do it right. Undoubtedly, the project has the potential to change the geography of Pakistan’s economy but there are important questions on the project that need to be answered,” observed senior economist Dr Kaiser Bengali.

He shared a few instances when he tried to get the project’s overall feasibility report from the Planning Commission but couldn’t.

“I was told that it’s confidential. I think such a report doesn’t exist, though studies of individual projects have been carried out.”

He also asked whether a cumulative environmental impact assessment report of the project had been prepared.

“What is Pakistan’s share in Gwadar port revenue? What will be the impact of transit trade on Pakistan’s manufacturing sector? What will be the impact of tax exemptions to CPEC-related foreign imports on Pakistan’s manufacturing sector?” he asked.

The Pakistan share in Gwadar port revenue, according to him, was nine per cent, though the government hadn’t announced it.

“What kind of business is this in which revenues are less than the expenditure?” he questioned.

He also raised concerns over the impact of balance of payments linked to CPEC-related foreign exchange inflows (loans) and outflows (debt repayment, profit remittance).

Highlighting concerns relating to Balochistan, he said that non-availability of water was a major issue in Gwadar and there should be a desalination plant in the district [playing a central role in CPEC].

Sharing similar concerns, Babu Gulab, the chairman of district council, Gwadar, urged the government to adopt an inclusive approach and take local stakeholders on board.

“The important thing is to give space to local people, or else we will allow the other narrative to establish itself,” he said.

Describing CPEC as a ray of hope, Zahidullah Shinwari heading the Peshawar Chamber of Commerce and Industries said that the underdeveloped regions like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata could benefit a lot from the project.

“Right now, there is no strategy in front of us. We don’t know how local industry (barely surviving amidst many challenges) would compete with Chinese products,” he noted, adding the government should only allow import of value-added products.

He criticised the government for entering into agreements that envisaged generation of costly electricity.

“The CPEC could be a game changer but are we ready to benefit from it? We have to end the ‘seth’ culture if we want that our labour force is employed by Chinese investors.”

Mehmood Nawaz Shah of Sindh Abadgar Board talked about the issues the agriculture sector was facing in Pakistan and said that 30 to 40 per cent of vegetable and fruit produce go wasted because the country lacked processing units.

Shamsul Islam of Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry expressed disappointment over government policies that had rendered local products uncompetitive in the regional and international markets.

“The domestic markets are flooded with imported goods [forcing manufacturers to explore other investment options]. People are investing their money in the real estate business,” he said, adding that Pakistan was the only country where a foreign investor didn’t need a local partner to start off business.

Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, chairman of the parliamentary committee on CPEC, spoke about the need to see CPEC from the regional and global perspective and said Pakistan was at the centre stage of new developments.

“China is rising as a global power. It has seen remarkable transformation over the decades and [is] now leading the world in science and innovation. Moreover, there is an emergence of greater South Asia,” he explained, adding that CPEC was a strategic partnership above government and political interests.

The parliamentary committee, he said, was acting like a bridge and all the four provincial governments as well Gilgit-Baltistan were on board.

He, however, agreed that CPEC affairs should be made transparent and the culture of secrecy was not the answer.

Syed Nasir Hussain Shah, having multiple portfolios and representing Sindh in relation to CPEC at the federal level, rejected what he described as ‘misconceptions’ surrounding CPEC and said if critics bring data, the government of Sindh would take their case forward.

Roshan Ali Shaikh, the director general, NIM, Karachi, retired Major General Zahir Shah, advisor infrastructure development and CPEC in Punjab, Planning and Development Board and Chinese Consul General Wang Yu also spoke.

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2017