LAHORE; May 6: The Punjab government’s much-trumpeted Saaf Dehat (clean villages) Programme has hit a snag owing to “over-budgeting” by the local government department and eventual ban slapped by the Election Commission of Pakistan on funding the ongoing development schemes and projects.

As per official sources, the political wrangling for more and more funds for national and provincial assemblies constituencies and the local government and community development (LG&CD) department’s inability to put forward a “realistic” demand for budget has resulted in uncalled for delay in release of funding for the last quarter of ongoing financial year 2018-19.

It is reliably learnt that the LG&CD department had been seeking a sum of Rs2.3 billion for the last two months of the current fiscal, besides re-appropriating funds from one scheme to another, while the finance department continued telling it that there were only Rs1.57 billion allocated for the purpose. Until the discrepancy was rectified, it was too late.

Since there is no hope for release of funds for the Saaf Dehat programme for now, all the efforts made so far and the one-time cleaning in 3,281 rural union councils at a total cost of over Rs492 million, may go down the drain.

The delay in the programme may result in returning of heaps of garbage in rural areas, causing embarrassment to the Shahbaz-led government in the upcoming general elections.

Each rural union council was given Rs150,000 for one-time removal of garbage and the process continued for several months, including two-month extension, till February 28, this year.

LG&CD department senior officials claim the one-time cleaning project had turned around the sanitation situation in the villages, where besides the staff hired for the purpose, the residents too volunteered for the removal of solid waste and cleaning of drains.

Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had launched the “Khadim-e-Punjab Saaf Dehat Programme” to improve the sanitation situation in rural areas across the province. Since the creation of Pakistan, the officials said, the system of solid waste management was almost non-existent in rural areas of the province. The programme aimed at cleaning of drains, sweeping streets and collection of solid waste was a boon for some 69.9 million people residing in rural areas of Punjab, they added.

As per LG&CD department estimates approximately 20,000 tons of municipal waste was being generated per day in rural areas, resulting in accumulation of heaps of solid waste in the villages that was not only destroying beauty of the rural landscape but also causing unhealthy environment for local population.

The officials said the situation had turned more grievous because of gradual shift in the composition of rural waste from nature-friendly organic materials to plastics and other dangerous stuff.

Given the conditions, they said, the cleaning of rural areas could no longer be neglected because besides threatening environment the chemical pollutants in waste material could also cause various diseases among livestock and humans by sneaking into the food chain.

A senior officer said the department had completed the process of awarding contracts to private parties for carrying out cleaning work in 3,281 rural union councils in the province. But, they said, the non-issuance of funds in the last quarter of current fiscal brought the project to a grinding halt.

The union councils did not have enough money to continue the project on their own, an official said.

“Now, the (LG&CD) department is presenting its budget proposals to the planning and development (P&D) department for allocation of funds (for the project) in the next financial year,” he said.

The official said the LG&CD department had issued tenders and shortlisted firms offering the lowest bids, besides finalising the agreement specimens and got them whetted from the law department. “The department was now at a stage where respective union councils’ heads were to sign agreements with the private vendors and execute the programme. But the whole process suffered a serious setback due to non-availability of funds well in time and eventual ban on investing in ongoing development projects and programmes by the ECP,” he lamented.

Since there was no hope of funds’ release within the present provincial government’s tenure that was going to end on June 4, and the caretaker government might not be interested in taking bid financial decisions, he said the department would be looking for regular funding after the new government got installed. “The department is also worried whether the shortlisted private vendors will readily be available at that time or it will have to go through the whole process of tendering again till issuance of work orders,” the official said.

To a question, the official claimed the department had got assessed the one-time cleaning and found that the villages were cleaned up to 90 per cent. He said there were some 500,000 pictures available on chief minister’s Saaf Dehat programme dashboard to prove the claim.

While the government’s intentions seem good, certain pressing questions are still being asked from different quarters regarding the sustainability of the programme

and “dumping” of the waste. “Whether the municipal waste will just be dumped on landfill sites or there are plans of running waste-to-energy (WtE) projects, as frequently asked by the chief minister himself in different policy-level meetings,” a source reminded.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2018