Where to, Captain?

16 Jul 2020


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

PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan talks of ‘my way, or highway’, meaning ‘do it my way, or get out’. His predecessor Nawaz Sharif compressed the slogan to ‘my highway’; his name becoming as linked to motorways as the fiddle was once to the Roman emperor Nero.

Imran Khan, after flailing for two years in office, is understandably frustrated at the palpable incompetence of his subordinates. He must recall with nostalgia when he was captain of a team of obedient players, each with a special skill but a common goal. He assumed that his cabinet of 30 ministers would acknowledge him as their shepherd and they, his sheep. Instead, he finds that even though the match is only halfway through, unruly spectators are storming the field, anxious for his autograph on their appeals.

If he hoped the civil service — once ‘a steel frame’ — would run the country for him as it had done for his predecessors of every political hue, he has been cruelly let down. The civil service and other public bodies, after years of neglect and misuse, suffer from a condition in humans known as osteoporosis. Unlike Covid-19, it is not a 21st-century phenomenon. In the 19th century, Austrian statesman Metternich recognised a similar deterioration at the court of Prussian emperor Frederick the Great: “There exists a conspiracy of mediocrities … united by the common terror of any decisive action.”

Imran Khan, put on the back foot by rumours of a minus-one change within his PTI, has announced a number of dramatic initiatives to reinvigorate public support. Used to receiving donations for his beloved Shaukat Khanum hospitals, now, as prime minister, he is expected to distribute largesse, sometimes beyond the nation’s finite resources.

Seven years later, we are back to marla one.

One grandiose scheme in Punjab was announced recently by his Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. He has approved plans for the creation of a new ‘Dubai-like’ modern city near Lahore, to resolve “the issues of congestion, water shortage and environmental pollution” in Lahore. Christened the Ravi River front project, the scheme will devour 100,000 acres (40,468 hectares) of presumably arable land.

Even before the financials have been determined, the Punjab government expects the private sector to invest Rs5 trillion in the scheme. Potential investors might be advised to read the petition filed in 2012 by concerned environmentalists who described the river Ravi as less a river than “a sludge carrier”. They should also consult the Dubai government on its experience in managing an overambitious Eldorado.

Punjab’s Ravi Riverfront Project will have to compete with the federal government’s programme for countless five-marla and 10-marla houses at subsidised interest rates. A new National Coordination Committee on Housing and Construction (NCCH&C) is tasked to coordinate Naya Housing Progra­mme with existing organisations in the same business. Someone has told the government to expect “around Rs20tr circulating in the informal unregistered economy” to be applied towards the federal housing scheme. A sterile incentive is to allow such community-conscious investors to have their black money thus whitened by Dec 31, 2020. Comm­ercial banks are expected to allocate five per cent of their portfolio amounting to Rs330 billion towards construction costs and the government promises a subsidy of Rs30bn (annually?).

Before finalising the scheme, the NCCH&C might like to read the State Bank’s 2014 report on its house financing experience: “Conven­tio­nal commercial banks have not pursued housing finance products actively due to difficulties related to foreclosure law and titling issues. Another reason hindering the growth of housing finance in Pakistan is reluctance of banks for lending outside few big cities. Moreover, the lack of effective institutional framework, secondary mortgage market and long term funding arrangements.”

In the 1970s, the slogan was ‘Roti, kapra aur makan’. In 2001, the government issued a National Housing policy, revised it in 2013. Seven years later, we are back to marla one. The visible flaw in the latest housing scheme is not in its intent; it lies in the unresolved obstacles like computerisation of land records, repossession safeguards, re-mortgages, and the availability of land that can be commandeered without shrinking agriculture.

The Ravi Riverfront and the 5-10 marla subsidised housing are all too obviously conceived by minds that have used the templates of the Yellow Cabs and the Yellow Tractor schemes. They are designed to humour incumbent governments, not to provide lasting solutions to problems that are born with every infant Pakistani.

In recessions, every government converts to Keynesianism. In the 1920s, Keynes advocated greater expenditure in public projects such as housing and roads to stimulate the economy: “By conducting the national wealth into capital developments at home, we may restore the balance of our economy … even though some of the schemes may turn out to be failures, which is very likely.” We have been warned.

The writer is an author.


Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2020