Beyond the glitz

November 07, 2018


The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

NEWS reports reveal that the cost of the Karachi Bulk Water Supply Project (K-IV) has climbed to Rs75 billion against the initial estimate of Rs25bn. The rupee’s falling value, change in route and other technical details related to the project have been cited as reasons.

If and when all the three sub-phases of K-IV are completed, it will add 650 million gallons of water to the city supplies each day. It may be kept in view that the water supply problems faced by citizens are not limited to quantity alone. Rundown distribution lines, erratic frequency of supply, low and uncertain quantities, poor quality, errors in billing, and many management issues are faced by consumers on a daily basis.

Often when a mega project and its details are discussed, it is believed that by merely hefty spending through project mode, all problems related to the sector will be resolved. This is incorrect. There are many expensive large-scale projects at different stages of planning and execution, but each ­is likely to have limited impact, despite ­budgeting billions of rupees.

For instance, all the six main corridors of the BRT project in Karachi will cost around Rs170bn, but handle less than 10 per cent of all passenger trips. The Greater Karachi Sewerage Scheme (Phase III) or S-III is estimated at Rs28bn, despite limited impact on overall waste water management. The Lyari Expressway cost Rs23bn and the Malir Expressway has a price tag of Rs42bn. None of these and other mega projects will address the full challenge.

The huge focus on mega projects is often attributed to biased minds.

A mega project is a development enterprise of scale and magnitude and cost overlays running into billions of rupees. Government officials, politicians and departmental heads are generally keen to initiate such projects despite technical, financial or managerial challenges. It is important to note that high-visibility mega projects are considered indicators of successful development. In cities, flyovers, transit interchanges, elevated corridors for automobiles, bridges and pylons are seen as the physical manifestation of development. In the rural sectors, power plants, waterways, canal ways and highways are image-boosting entities.

A major reason for overemphasis on mega projects is the bias of technocratic minds. Architects, engineers and financial experts normally support such mega projects.

First, consultancy and supervision rates increase to the benefit of consultants. Second, it satisfies the professional ego of consultants when they construct large and visible projects. Third, it creates opportunities for obtaining more projects. And since the consultants are only concerned about execution, they seldom care to look into the future worth and sustainability of such projects. Such a lamb trot has given rise to many isolated stand-alone projects that were not necessarily beneficial for the people.

Mega projects normally see sizable operation and maintenance costs. As the number of projects increase, maintenance costs rise proportionally. The government finds it difficult to raise adequate funds to carry out periodic repair and maintenance due to a limited budget. Thus projects start deteriorating. Often, irreparable damage appears, causing loss of precious funds and effort.

The KMC has a budget outlay of about Rs27bn. Much of this amount is spent on staff salaries, while only a fraction is invested in the maintenance of existing systems. The planning and design of mega projects are often inaccurate. For instance, storm-water drains in Karachi are almost entirely converted into regular sewage outlets, delivering large portions of raw waste directly into the sea. Instead of realising this fact, large treatment plants are being constructed, which are neither geographically congruent nor technically integrated to collect the sewage for treatment.

Mega projects should possess a corresponding link with small and medium-scale works. This will create a sense of initiative amongst individuals, small groups and even local bodies to address their respective developmental issues. If a sewage treatment plant is to be built, it should be rationally connected to the disposal channels at tertiary, secondary and primary scales.

Socially, the creation and development of such projects should evolve from an understanding of the need of the concerned segment of the population. Wherever improved roads with a modernised fleet of buses can perform the task of urban transportation adequately, the need for elevated mass ­transit does not arise.

Often the expanded costs of mega projects are borne by loans from IFIs. This can be greatly curtailed by accurate planning and careful budgeting. Administratively, the cross section of society for whom the project is intended should be made to ­participate in each and every stage of the execution and running of the project.

The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2018