WHEN picking populist fruit, go for the low-hanging ones first. Or at least this seems to be the gist of the policy that the PTI government has adopted in its early days in power.
Before Imran Khan’s rabid supporters take aim at me, let me make it clear that I am all for austerity. In fact, the way our politicians have been flaunting their access to power and the exchequer has been obscene in a poor country like Pakistan. Leaders of far wealthier nations are more circumspect in their public conduct.
Editorial: Austerity or folly?
So when Khan announced he would not live in the official prime minister’s house, I thought this was a wise choice, given the opulence and sheer bad taste displayed by the architects of that eyesore. But this austerity measure didn’t stop here: we have now been informed by Shafqat Mahmood, an old friend, and now burdened with the cumbersome cabinet title of Federal Minister for National History and Literary Division, that a large number of other government buildings across the country would be converted to alternate uses.
The idea to convert official residences into hotels is a risky one.
For starters, the PM’s House would be turned into a state-of-the-art university. Having served as president of a private university for five years, I know that an institute of higher education is about more than just bricks and mortar, and that a building is just the start. Finding, hiring and retaining motivated, qualified faculty is the biggest challenge.
For a university to establish itself as a centre of excellence takes years of work and a lot of resources. So when the minister informs us that the PM’s House currently costs Rs470 million to maintain, let me assure him that the running expense of a university will be far, far higher.
We were also informed that a number of different official buildings would be put to other uses. While I’m all for colonial-era perks like enormous houses for provincial governors being opened to the public, the government needs to tread carefully before it finds it has bred a herd of white elephants.
For instance, the huge Governor’s House in Lahore is proposed to be turned into a museum and an art gallery, with its splendid gardens serving as a public park. A good idea, except that a museum, especially one this size, needs a large number of objects to display. We already have the Lahore Museum with its rich collection of Gandhara, Mughal and Sikh period objects.
And an art gallery requires paintings and sculptures to show. Up to the 1970s, there used to be a committee of artists who had a budget to acquire contemporary works of art for the National Gallery. This was abolished by Zia, but revived by Benazir Bhutto. I don’t know if the committee actually bought any paintings before she was removed from office to be replaced by that art connoisseur, Nawaz Sharif. Incidentally, the reason I am fairly well informed about these matters is that in my civil service career, I did a stint in the ministry of culture.
While the inevitable government subsidies for these initiatives will cost far more than the Rs1.15 billion the government currently spends on the maintenance of the buildings it wishes to put to alternate use, the amounts involved won’t make Pakistan any the poorer. However, the desire to convert the Governor’s House in Nathiagali into a holiday resort, and Karachi’s Qasr-i-Naz federal government guesthouse into a five-star hotel is fraught with risk.
People toss the term ‘five-star hotel’ around as though they were referring to the local dhaba. The fact is that Pakistan does not have a single hotel that would qualify for this ranking internationally. To actually convert a shabby government guesthouse into one would require a huge investment and carry considerable risk. Has there been a feasibility study to determine if there’s a shortage of upmarket hotel rooms in Karachi?
Clearly, the government does not have the expertise to establish and run hotels. The Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, the government-controlled entity that runs cheap hotels across the country, has complained of a chronic lack of funds, and its staff often has to wait for their salaries for months. So obviously, we will have to turn to private hoteliers to invest and run these ‘five-star’ hotels on their terms.
I am all for increasing the number of parks, museums, universities and art galleries, and am glad these initiatives are important to this government. However, I am counselling caution because I am aware of the time and resources needed to turn these dreams into reality.
As he searches for quick fixes to the country’s complex problems, Imran Khan is discovering that it’s far easier to destabilise governments through non-stop agitation and the threat of violence than it is to run the administration. His early attempts to look and sound prime ministerial would carry greater conviction if more thought had gone into his words. After all, he has had over 20 years preparing for this moment.
Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2018