FROM the remarks made by a few judges of the Supreme Court, it seems that interest in the dam fund might be revived all over again.
The fund was originally set up in July 2018, ostensibly to collect funds for the Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand dams, and the website of the Supreme Court specifically solicited donations in the name of the construction of these reservoirs. A few months later, the newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan added his voice to the call for donations, especially urging overseas Pakistanis to contribute to the effort to raise funds via voluntary donations for an infrastructure building enterprise that was slated to cost upward of Rs1.4tr for the Diamer-Bhasha dam alone.
To date, a little over Rs11bn has been collected, mostly from domestic contributions, and many of those made by deducting the pay of salaried people, including within the armed forces. Since the retirement of chief justice Saqib Nisar, who had launched the venture with much zeal, all parties lost interest in the fund and donations petered out to nearly zero.
In its detailed judgement on the dam fund case, the court had specifically written that the funds would not be used for any purpose other than paying for the construction of the dam — something that is expected to take a decade, if indeed the venture ever reaches that stage. So the National Bank made arrangements for placement of the funds in treasury bills until then.
Now the court wants to know why the donations have halted, and particularly why overseas Pakistanis have not deposited larger sums. State Bank data shows that of the Rs11.75bn collected thus far, only Rs1.7bn appear to be from overseas Pakistanis. It seems that the impression, going by the court’s questions, is that overseas Pakistanis are facing hurdles in transferring funds into the accounts where donations can be accepted. So the State Bank has been ordered to take appropriate action to remove these hurdles, whatever they may be.
It needs to be repeated once again that the entire project is not only a futile attempt, but completely off the mark when it comes to the question of infrastructure finance.
The dam fund is now a confused and haphazard exercise that has done more harm than good by absorbing too much of the state’s attention as well as giving the people the questionable impression that the government will use their donations for funding the dams.
It is high time to wrap the whole thing up, and consider placing the funds collected thus far into the construction of small dams in Balochistan instead. That way at least the spirit under which the donations were sought, and commitments made, can be lived up to. It is evident that the venture should never have been launched in the first place.
Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2019