IF one undertakes to irrigate land in the middle of a desert it would cost millions but if it is to be done on the bank of a river, the cost would be negligible in comparison. Likewise, if the land to be irrigated is only one square metre and can be irrigated by a can of water, then it does not mean that one square kilometre can also be irrigated at a similar cost using just one can of water. This somewhat obvious logic seems to be too complex to comprehend for the prime minister and most of the members of his cabinet, who often act more like ‘propaganda machines’ and less like federal ministers.
Not too long ago, the communications minister, Murad Saeed claimed that the road construction cost for contracts awarded during the PML-N’s tenure was Rs370 million per kilometre while for those awarded during the PTI government it has been Rs170m per kilometre. This was tweeted by the honourable minister, but no details were given. Had he bothered to give other information — like the name of the projects, the location, the executing agency — this claim would have been challenged then and there. Thanks to Twitter’s policy of keeping tweets limited to 280 characters, the minister not only escaped scrutiny but was also lauded by a hyperactive army of PTI supporters on social media. Before the elections, he had also said that if it was able to form the government, the PTI would bring back $200 billion of looted wealth stashed in foreign accounts by corrupt elements.
Prime Minister Imran Khan and his associates have a habit of oversimplifying matters. Such an approach is forgivable in election campaigns as one must play to the gallery but once in the driving seat it becomes counterproductive.
Now let us evaluate some initiatives in the time period which, as per the PTI, cost more than twice the amount the current government paid.
Careless statements can have consequences.
Between 2014 and 2018, a number of CPEC infrastructure projects comprising road networks were built. Since these include huge projects various factors like the size of the projects, the terrain, the pace of execution, the complexity of the project and the security situation determine the cost. There is something called the project management triangle, where the cost, scope and time determine the quality of the project. Divide the same projects into very small chunks and you can hire petty contractors to do this work much cheaper. But would this be the correct approach? They would cut corners, compromise safety and each chunk would be prepared at its own pace, thus increasing the time of completion.
However, the purpose of this article is not to justify the costs of the projects but to call upon those holding responsible offices in government to consider the repercussions of their often superfluous statements for the country; ie they should not be saying things out of political consideration alone.
The Jaglot-Skardu, Jalkhad-Challas, Turbat-Hoshab, Hoshab-Sohrab highways, the Sehwan-Ratodero route, the Thaliyan Link Road and others were built by the army’s Frontier Works Organisation. By condemning the projects under its predecessors, is the government hinting that a state institution was hand in glove with the PML-N to siphon off public funds by over-invoicing certain projects? One hopes that this is not the implication. Indeed, the claim of the minister was superfluous and it showed a lack of understanding of engineering projects.
Where the Multan-Sukkur Motorway and Havelian-Thakot Motorway are concerned, they were built by Chinese state-owned giant China State Construction Engineering Corporation and China Communications Construction Company Ltd respectively. Ironically, the CSEC celebrated the completion of the 392-km Multan-Sukkur Motorway in Pakistan in a record 36 months. It is the engineering excellence of these projects that should be lauded. If there are doubts about financial probity then these should be investigated at an appropriate level and not via social media.
Irresponsible statements, especially those that come from the ruling circles, do not augur well for a project the size of CPEC, especially when they are picked up and further amplified by the top leadership. No wonder just a few weeks ago, the Chinese ambassador expressed extreme frustration over the slowing down of CPEC projects in Pakistan.
Lastly and thankfully, responsible states like China in this case have their own intelligence reports and assessment of the ground realities; had they relied on propaganda machines and statements from those holding offices of great responsibility then the proverbial ‘higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the Arabian Sea’ Pakistan-China friendship would have been in a shambles like almost everything else in the hands of this shooting-from-the-hip regime.
The writer is a former civil servant.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2021