KEEN to make up for the lost time, beat the perception of underperformance and generate political capital for next year’s general elections, Sindh’s team burned the midnight oil to get ready to claim the province’s share in the multibillion-dollar CPEC pie.

It intends to push three new projects in the CPEC fold in the seventh meeting in Islamabad of the Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC), the apex decision-making forum jointly chaired by Pakistan’s planning minister and vice-chairman of National Development and Reform Commission of China.

The PPP-led provincial government has identified the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR), Dhabeji special economic zone (SEZ) and Keti Bandar as projects that in its view promise widespread returns to its electorate and will be most economically rewarding in terms of closing the infrastructure gaps in Sindh.

Insiders say the province is not expecting a breakthrough in all three projects, but it is hopeful that the KCR — already approved by all pre-JCC forums — would get the green light during the moot and take off as early as January.

Naeem uz Zafar, chief economist at Sindh’s planning department, sounded positive. “We are all set to pitch in and present a strong case for making the said projects part of the CPEC deal,” he said.

Under the CPEC, 13 projects have so far been located in the southern province. These include: Matiari-Lahore transmission line, Matiari-Faisalabad transmission line, Port Qasim power plant, Engro Thar power plant, an open-pit mine in block-II of Thar coalfield, upgrade of ML-1, Thar coal block-I and mine-mouth power plant, Gwadar-Nawabshah LNG terminal and pipeline, Karachi-Lahore motorway, and Dawood, Jhimpir, Sachal and China-Sunec wind farms.

‘It’s the easiest for provinces to blame the Centre and cover up their own incompetence,’ an official says

However, all of these projects were said to be conceived and developed by the federal government in collaboration with the Chinese, with minimal input from the provincial government.

When confronted on the exclusion of Sindh in the planning phase of the corridor project, a key character in Pakistan’s CPEC story told this writer last year that the pressure from the Chinese side to move quickly did not allow the federal government time to fully integrate the provinces initially.

“Besides, we did not expect quality input because of the limited capacity of the provinces, particularly the smaller three. Our position was vindicated when we did try to take them on board and asked them to send project proposals complete with feasibility reports. It took them months to send half-baked list that required work to shape up,” he said.

“It’s the easiest for provinces to blame the Centre and cover up their own incompetence,” he argued, banging the table.

Responding to a question about Punjab’s participation and the perception of the unfair preferential treatment it gets by the ruling party, a federal minister dismissed the argument as baseless.

“Who has stopped others to deliver? Yes, [Punjab Chief Minister] Shahbaz Sharif is a go-getter, but who is forcing Murad Ali Shah, Sanaullah Zehri and Pervaiz Khattak not to perform?” he wondered, referring to chief ministers of Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “Sharif directly approached the Chinese with viable projects and earned their support. It is unfair to blame others for your failings.”

Muhammad Waseem, chairman of Sindh’s planning and department board, believed that unlike Punjab, Sindh has not been able to publicise the progress on multiple development projects. He was particularly boastful of the work done ahead of time in Thar coalfield. He was confident and looking forward to the CPEC meeting.

However, another senior member of the hierarchy in Sindh laughed off the accusatory tone of Centre, and contested PML-N’s claim to take credit for the CPEC.

“It’s true that the marriage was consummated in the tenure of the current government, but the affair started five years before it assumed power,” commented a top bureaucrat in Sindh. “It is an undeniable historical fact that the groundwork for close economic cooperation between Pakistan and China started and progressed under the last PPP government.”

Insiders say the province is not expecting a breakthrough in all three projects, but it is hopeful that the KCR would get the green light

An agitated politician asserted that the politics of oppression of smaller provinces can’t be brushed aside in Pakistan by calling it a figment of imagination of disgruntled, misguided elements. “It’s like blaming the poor for their misfortune,” he said.

“Decades of deprivation have left their mark. The provincial government has been trying to deal with the situation, but infusing confidence and building capacity is a long, arduous process in a province where the situation is as complex as in Sindh,” he said, indirectly accepting flaws in the governance framework.

Sindh’s planning and development department did develop a long list of projects it considered crucial for the socio-economic development of the province and harnessing its potential with China’s support.

They covered piped water supply to households, the extension of sewage network, upgrading of irrigation, agriculture modernisation, industrial parks near farms, transport, and health and education.

Currently, however, the department has prioritised three projects, as mentioned above. Of them, the Sindh hierarchy expects tangible progress on the KCR during the Islamabad huddle. The other two, though endorsed in principle by the federal government and the Chinese, might be deferred till the next deliberations because of an already heavy agenda for the JCC.

Naheed Memon, chairperson of the Sindh Board of Investment, was not in agreement. “We expect the commission would also approve the Dhabeji SEZ to be developed as a priority project and the framework agreement for the KCR to be approved to be ready for negotiation and implementation.”

There was nothing to suggest that the provincial government involved the private sector or lower tiers of the government in crafting its proposals for the JCC.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 20th, 2017