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CPEC allegations

Updated February 21, 2019

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WHEN Communications Minister Murad Saeed alleged in public remarks that there was corruption in the award of the contract to build the Sukkur-Multan motorway, he may not have known how large a matter he was inserting himself into.

That contract was part of CPEC and was awarded to the China State Construction Engineering Corporation after what the National Highway Authority chairman referred to as “controlled bidding”.

There were two other companies bidding for the contract, both Chinese. Construction work began in August 2016, and one section of the road — Multan to Shujabad — was inaugurated in May last year. It is scheduled to be completed by August this year, and is undoubtedly the single-largest road-building contract in the entire CPEC portfolio.

It is also the largest grant-funded project in CPEC, with a total cost of almost Rs300bn, 75pc of which is funded by foreign assistance, as per the details on the Planning Commission website. And to top it off, it is one of the oldest projects envisaged in the CPEC portfolio.

In short, the minister is touching upon a massive project, funded in significant part by Chinese money. It is well past the point of no return in its execution, and forms an important part of the central axis around which CPEC is said to revolve: overland connectivity from south to north.

Little wonder then that the minister’s allegations drew a furious response from the CSCEC, which is unusual for a Chinese company. In a strongly worded response, the company said it was “extremely shocked” at the “groundless allegations” that the minister made in public.

Given the enormity of what is being touched upon, and the fact that the project is backed by the guarantee of the government of Pakistan, the sentiments expressed are understandable.

If the minister has concrete evidence of corruption or any other wrongdoing in this project, he should have spent more time elaborating upon it in his public remarks. A more professional approach would have been to first discuss the evidence (such as there may be) with the company before going public with it.

The company’s response makes it seem like this was not done. If the minister can credibly establish that there has been corruption in the award of the contract, beyond superficial allegations, then it is imperative to follow up on them, catch those responsible, and hold them accountable.

But it is worthwhile to remember that the same project attracted similar allegations from opposition parties back in March last year, with nothing coming of the matter other than a virulent public spectacle. If there is any evidence of wrongdoing, action must be taken. But angry speeches and public allegations help neither the Pakistan-China bilateral cooperation, nor the fight against corruption at home.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2019