Ruin in the name of development

Published May 31, 2021
With an estimated cost of Rs56 billion, the disputes surrounding the RRR project led to the resignation of a special assistant to the prime minister. — File
With an estimated cost of Rs56 billion, the disputes surrounding the RRR project led to the resignation of a special assistant to the prime minister. — File

A fracas has been unleashed around the affairs of the Rawalpindi Ring Road (RRR) project.

Smelling a rat, the prime minister ordered inquiries into the planning, design, alleged change in its “right of way” and related matters. Other agencies have also jumped in either to display their efficiency or in a bid to toe the official line.

With an estimated cost of Rs56 billion, the disputes surrounding the RRR project led to the resignation of a special assistant to the prime minister (SAPM).

But this is not the only project that seems to be turning into a scam. Not long ago, issues in Peshawar’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) caused similar challenges to the provincial regime in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The multi-billion-rupee project was criticised for poor planning and execution as well as alleged wasteful expenditure in several heads.

Transparency International Pakistan (TIP) has written a letter to the government of Sindh voicing serious concerns about the affairs of the Karachi Safe City project. TIP has questioned the dubious procurement process for the supply and installation of 10,000 cameras to an agency without fulfilling public procurement obligations. It has also been reported that the market price of the said cameras is about Rs7bn, a figure at least four times lower than the approved amount.

And remember K-IV? The much-trumpeted Greater Karachi Water Supply Scheme Phase IV (popularly called K-IV) began with a simple alignment and right-of-way more than a decade ago by the government of Sindh with the assistance of the federal government.

While political parties fight on TV screens, they follow identical paths when it comes to so-called development projects

After passing through a series of hangovers, it is now with Wapda to steer. One is forced to raise eyebrows as to why development projects in our country experience controversies.

And even when they are implemented, why do such projects cause little or no benefit to sectors, settlements and locations? Let us dilate on some of the major causes.

Most development projects are not the outcome of any scientific urban and regional planning exercise. They originate from multiple routes. Many of these ventures pose a direct threat to the contextual setting and the ecosystem in which they are supposed to exist.

Take the example of Bundal and Buddo island development ventures. The federal government seems to have launched this initiative purely for political and strategic gains in its tussle with the provincial government.

After experiencing a poor show in executing development activities in Karachi from where the ruling party won many national and provincial assembly seats, party higher-ups contemplated utilising the city’s coastline. It was common sense that the federal clout could be used for propelling some high-visibility projects along the sea.

A similar venture was initiated by the provincial government under the name of Zulfikarabad in Thatta and Sujawal districts in 2010. The project was supposed to be on a piece of land that is more than twice the size of Karachi.

While the stated objectives were different, the obvious intention was to open up the coastal territories for multi-use development, mostly for commercial gains. It has been lying on the backburner for some years. But one fails to understand how an extremely high-cost and environmentally sensitive territory like the coastline could be targeted for real estate development.

If initiated, this development will bring an environmental catastrophe to the metropolis.

International donor agencies have a huge influence in launching high-end development projects with little real benefit. Part of BRT in Karachi is being supported by these donor agencies. A prime donor agency has pledged a loan of $382 million for Yellow Line while another donor agency committed a loan of about $235m for Red Line.

If implemented, there’s a possibility that these projects will always burden the provincial and national exchequers. BRT will only run on government subsidies. Otherwise, it will close down.

Not surprisingly, favourite consultancies and contracting enterprises are having a field day from the juicy contracts, fallouts of which will eventually transfer on to the taxpayers.

With fancy channels such as the public-private partnership now available to both provincial and federal governments, cronies bring unsolicited proposals to the decision-makers’ tables. After striking the clandestine deals and cosmetically fulfilling administrative prerequisites, projects are approved and given a go-ahead without any independent evaluation or public scrutiny.

The RRR project and Malir Expressway in Karachi, by two different provincial governments, are cases in point. While political parties seem to bicker on TV screens, they follow identical paths when it comes to approaching development projects.

Projects under the public-private partnership are usually a marriage of convenience as opposed to an equal-opportunity enterprise. Powerful and well-connected venture capitalists attempt to access local political stakeholders after identifying options for profiteering.

Transportation corridors serve an ideal premise. When a high-quality road is developed in an otherwise barren location, land prices go up. Adjacent pieces of land become lucrative parcels for multi-use development. Thus, strategic capitalists, with tacit assistance of government functionaries, procure land in bulk and thereafter package it into lucrative real estate.

No regulatory check worth the name is applied to examine the environmental, infrastructural and socio-economic considerations in such instances. If and when completed, locations adjacent to the RRR will pose new demands for water, sewerage, waste management, power and social infrastructure services.

Karachi Northern Bypass is a living example of this phenomenon. The road was to only facilitate freight traffic shift away from the busy streets of Karachi. However, it ended up opening a new land market for formal and informal transactions.

Our cities and regions do require a range of medium to large-scale projects, especially for the benefit of our underprivileged communities. Consider the fact that about 54 per cent of the national urban population resides in 10 large cities, mostly in informal settlements, rundown inner city quarters and worn-out low-income neighbourhoods.

A comprehensive urban renewal in our large cities can be a starting point. The private sector can be invited to contribute through articulate project planning and design. International examples like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) in India and National Slum Upgrading Strategy in the Philippines can offer useful lessons.

Both the initiatives, undertaken several years ago, intended to transform urban locations into sustainable and equitable options for multiple stakeholders. They offered a series of integrated interventions for the benefit of people already living in cities.

By intelligent strategic planning and project design exercises, we can surely help our cities and regions transform into sustainable habitats for the present and future purposes.

It is not the job of the state to act like an estate agent.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 31st, 2021

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