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Karachi Circular Railway faces derailment — again

Updated January 15, 2018

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Source: Sindh Government
Source: Sindh Government

GETTING around is going to get tougher with time for Karachiites as the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) has hit snags — yet again. The mass transit project can potentially serve millions of distressed daily commuters and decongest roads of the megalopolis.

Sindh’s leadership accuses the federal government of deliberately blocking a project for political ends. “The domination of Punjab is not just on the country’s resources but also on future opportunities. The perception is not a figment of imagination. It is as real as reality,” said a key member of Sindh’s economic team discussing the KCR and comparing it with the implementation of the Orange Line Metro Train project in Lahore.

“The future of CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) in Pakistan depends on the fair distribution of its benefits across all provinces,” he added bitterly.

The new demands or suggestions by the federal government regarding the KCR have been translated in Sindh as Islamabad’s intent to discard the project.

Without explicitly directing the provincial government to shun the KCR, the federal government’s offices concerned were said to be using old tactics of delay. “They are reopening the settled issues and intentionally delaying the implementation,” said a senior official associated with the project.

It was conveyed recently that the Chinese funding of $2 billion for the project was not possible in the immediate future. Sindh has been advised to seek other options of funding on its own. The

provincial government has also been asked to initiate a summary of sovereign guarantee for investors of the KCR in the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC).

Sindh officials fear the federal government is looking for an excuse to suspend the project, pinning the responsibility of non-implementation on the province

However, the Sindh hierarchy have mocked recent letters from Islamabad. They said that the ECC was beyond their jurisdiction, and if some issues relating to the KCR are still pending it was the responsibility of the relevant federal ministries to table them at the economic decision-making forums.

“The federal government initially supported the project’s revival by bringing it under the CPEC umbrella, but it has made a U-turn,” Dr Naeem Zafar, Sindh’s chief economist, said. “Pakistan Railways was never warm towards the idea. It was reluctant to follow government directives on granting right of way, handing over the control of the Karachi Urban Transport Corporation and transfer of land on the KCR route for stations to Sindh government.”

“It did not show flexibility to address contentious issues and made cooperation conditional on unrealistic demands,” he said.

However, Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique dismissed the perception as baseless. In a response forwarded to Dawn by his secretariat in Lahore, Mr Rafique said he wished to join Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah at the launch of the project as soon as possible.

“As a child I have travelled in a tram in Karachi. The people of Karachi deserve improved transportation facilities. Pakistan Railways is set to extend all support in its power to remove hitches in implementation of the KCR project, which has already been 30 years late,” he asserted.

But some senior sources in the Sindh government shared the official correspondence to justify their apprehensions.

“Besides a lack of progress despite multiple reminders, the progress, if at all, was tardy. We fear that the federal government is looking for an excuse to suspend the project, pinning the responsibility of non-implementation on Sindh,” commented a frustrated provincial secretary who returned from Lahore as Pakistan Railways cancelled a KCR-related meeting at the eleventh hour.

A letter of the Finance Division — dated Jan 1, 2018 and seen by Dawn — desires the Sindh government to move a summary for the approval of sovereign guarantee in the ECC when it has already been approved by all relevant forums.

On the KCR funding, the Economic Affairs Division through a letter issued in December tied fund arrangement for the KCR to the next framework agreement with China. The letter said the economic affair division was not clear about the mode of funding.

However, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal — who also holds the planning portfolio and heads team Pakistan on the CPEC — told Dawn he was not aware of the recent letters originating from the Ministry of Finance and Economic Division.

Hassan Dawood Butt, CPEC’s project director and coordinator, did not respond to the message or took a call.

Several attempts to solicit opinion of the finance ministry also proved futile because of the reshuffling at the top level.

Secretary Finance Arif Ahmed Khan, who assumed charge on Jan 11, was too busy settling down to be able to spare time or articulate opinion on a tricky issue. The outgoing officers declined to comment on technical grounds.

Seniors in the Sindh government said they were confident that with Chinese support the long-delayed megaproject would be completed in record time. However, with a change of heart in Islamabad, getting Chinese to commit resources for the KCR would be difficult, if not impossible.

“The federal government’s current stance is highly objectionable. It will widen the wedge between Sindh and Punjab,” said a concerned citizen. “Karachi is double the size of Lahore and contributes to the GDP and the government kitty several times more. It deserved to be rewarded. Instead, Islamabad is bent upon robbing it of a chance of reviving the mass transit system rendered dysfunctional for the neglect.”

Experts following the KCR over the past few decades were also disappointed. “In the past the project has been discussed and debated many times over, but it was never this close to take off. After its inclusion in the CPEC we thought that the KCR has finally arrived. We were wrong again,” an urban development expert said.

A PPP MNA said the federal government did not see the KCR generating political capital for the PML-N. “The ruling party doesn’t see Karachi as its constituency and decided to use its leverage in China to channelise funds for projects in Punjab where it foresee tough electoral contest later this year,” he added.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 15th,2018