Too little broth

June 27, 2019


The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

DAMS are not constructed on the whim of a Supreme Court chief justice. Had that been the case, Mangla Dam would have been the brainchild of Supreme Court Chief Justice A.R. Cornelius and Tarbela Dam that of Supreme Court Chief Justice A.R. Rahman.

Both chief justices, had they been alive, would have been horrified at the suo motu intervention of their successor in an area beyond the competence of their Supreme Court. Both knew that every profession has its own expertise and specialty, and should be trusted with it.

Most Pakistanis today are not aware of the steps taken by Gen Ayub Khan soon after assuming power in 1958 to anticipate the country’s energy requirements. The Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) was established with, as its name implied, a Water Wing responsible for hydel power generation and a Power Wing for thermal. Hydel projects by their very nature had a long gestation period compared to thermal ones which could be brought on stream within two to three years. Inevitably, the rabbit outran the tortoise. Since 1958, Wapda Hydel has produced only 6,902 megawatts.

The restructuring of Wapda in 2007 and the emergence of independent power producers reduced WAPDA Water to the status of a neglected handmaiden. One chairman Wapda appointed by Gen Musharraf lamented that every time dams were mentioned, his prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, would look out of the window. We are paying for that insouciance.

One dam, however daintily packaged, is not the solution.

There is no Pakistani who drinks water who does not recognise that with depleting water resources and a burgeoning population, we are sinking deeper into a pit of our own mismanagement. One dam — however daintily packaged — is not the solution, and everyone associated with the collection of funds for the Diamer-Bhasha dam fund should have known that. If they didn’t, they have been responsible for negligence. If they did, their actions (however well-meant) could constitute misrepresentation. That is a harsh yet not unjustified assertion. Just step back and look at the facts.

The Diamer-Bhasha dam had been initiated by Musharraf in 2006 as one of five dams to be built across the country. The anticipated cost then was $12.6 billion. In 2017, an attempt was made to smuggle the Diamer-Bhasha dam under the umbrella of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese agreed, provided we conceded another dam of their choice. We backed off.

In July 2018, the then Supreme Court chief justice launched the Diamer-Bhasha dam fund with such magnetic vigour that within no time, contributions (not all them voluntary) poured in. Government servants and uniformed personnel in the armed forces contributed a day’s salary; retirees dug into their savings; widows gave their mites, and every branch of every bank throughout Pakistan advertised the scheme to encourage the public to subscribe.

Not one person within the lumbering structure of Pakistan’s fiscal governance thought of asking what was the legal status of the fund, who were its trustees, did the fund have any rules, who was responsible for its administration, and who would decide the beneficial application of the funds accumulated. Was there even a provision for a refund should some contributor change his or her mind?

The Rs10.6bn collected would have been a one-way tunnel into oblivion had the present Supreme Court chief justice not asked why the funds collected were lying with commercial banks free of interest, and why the Supreme Court was involved in dams at all?

Common sense asserted itself. One report (uncontradicted) disclosed that the Rs10.6bn. was to be invested “in 10-year paper” issued by the National Bank of Pakistan offering a rate of return said to be 12.6 per cent per annum. If so, the funds would remain locked until maturity, in effect for all the 10 years it would take to complete the dam.

The funds have in fact are being held by the National Bank of Pakistan jointly with the State Bank in Government Treasury bills, on a three month roll-over basis.

Is Rs10.6bn sufficient earnest money to start a dam project that will require $16bn-plus to complete? And what of the rumour that the Diamer-Bhasha funds may be diverted towards yet another dam — the Mohmand dam? The public has a right to know, but will never receive any answers because it does not know, in this convoluted conundrum, to whom to address such questions.

One neighbour of ours is building a dam costing IRs35,000 crores with two adjoining states sharing the cost and the benefits. Another built the Three Gorges dam without the intervention of its Supreme Court.

The Diamer-Bhasha dam episode has taught us one thing: we Pakistanis suffer from a serious culinary imbalance — there are too many spoons trying to stir too little broth.

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2019