‘PUNJAB speed’ is a phrase proudly coined by the Shahbaz Sharif government to describe the impressive speed at which projects were implemented in the province by his administration. However, this was achieved neither by improving the bureaucracy nor the systems, but by taking shortcuts.
For example, to provide clean drinking water, rather than turn to the local bodies whose task it was, a Section 42 company, Saaf Pani, was floated and given a one-line budget, which was kept flexible. Funds were apparently released without any scrutiny, such as a pre-audit or evaluation of any kind — economic, environmental or technical — which is the duty of the finance department, the planning and development department and the accountant general. The rationale was that since the company had its own board, they would do the scrutiny.
But boards such as those of Saaf Pani were headed by the chief minister’s political representatives and led by handpicked CEOs from the bureaucracy, who were projected as go-getters expected to live up to their reputations. So the prime criterion to get a pat on the back was speed, not cost or project sustainability.
Forming a company to achieve a certain objective with proper scrutiny, evaluation and supervision is a worthwhile undertaking, but it has been made into a scandal by its indiscriminate use.
Systemic improvement is needed, not shortcuts.
While these companies were still struggling to deliver, advertisement campaigns and slick briefings gave the government a euphoric feeling of success. So more and more new companies were formed to beat the ‘bureaucratic red tape’. Not a day passed without a few advertisements in the morning papers about the chief minister’s initiatives.
If there was need to ensure quality meat for the public, the Punjab Agriculture and Meat Company was formed. To sort out parking problems, run juma bazaars, undertake skills development, or build government hospitals, the relevant departments were not asked to improve themselves; their staff was not provided the necessary training and resources. Instead, forming a company was seen as the quickest route.
Similarly for police; rather than enhance the capabilities of the police running the thanas, a daunting task, more than a dozen different forces, each more glamorous and more expensive than the last, were created. This sustained the illusion of improvement in the police force. For example the Elite Police was set up as the law-enforcement authority’s aggressive branch to carry out raids, etc. But then the need was felt to raise yet another force, the Quick Response Force, to tackle terrorists.
To fight street crime, the Dolphin Force, riding powerful, was formed. Motorbikes have their limitations, so yet another force, the Police Emergency Response Unit, riding white Corollas, was launched.
This list does not take into account the Mujahid Force (which has the duty of escorting VVIPS), Special Branch staff, Counter Terrorism Department personnel, Security Division for GORs, Anti-Corruption Force, traffic police, etc. So according to my calculations, there are more than a dozen specialised forces (not counting the Reserve Police), while the thanas, which are the face of the police and where 90pc of the problems lie, were not on the government’s radar.
I recall meeting an SHO a few months back who told me he has 16 constables at his police station to cater to 100,000 people and, of these, half are on protocol duty. And while the best constables in terms of education and physical fitness are sent to the Elite Force and other forces, the rest are posted at the police stations.
All this is reflective of the general tendency to take shortcuts, to undertake schemes that demonstrate immediate and visible results, while ignoring mainstream government systems that are obviously difficult to set right.
My fear is that Imran Khan’s government may repeat the same mistake under pressure from the media and political opponents who have already started the reverse count of the first 100 days. His own promises to the nation in his two addresses have raised expectations.
Some cabinet members have also committed to significant changes in the first 100 days. Others must be under pressure too, fearing they may lose their job unless they show immediate results.
But remember, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa voted for PTI despite Peshawar lying ripped apart and no BRT in sight, while in Punjab, people did not vote in expected numbers for the PML-N, even though the Orange Line is almost complete. The voter has become wise and wants sustainable projects.
It is advisable for Prime Minister Khan to show his leadership qualities, to withstand the pressure and undertake sustainable initiatives, even if the ultimate results take more than his five-year term to manifest themselves, so that we don’t lose another 70 years by going around in circles, undertaking make-believe projects at ‘Punjab speed’.
The writer is a former civil servant.
Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2018