WHAT is common between the Pakistan Engineering Council and parrots? Other than the fact that they begin with the letter ‘P’, both are capable of issuing statements from time to time which no one takes seriously. And both are toothless. The PEC is supposed to safeguard the rights of engineering firms and engineers in the country but it has sadly failed to do so as it is not backed up by any political will or government support. Recently, prominently placed appeals by the Contractors Association of Pakistan to the prime minister and planning minister were published by newspapers. These appeals were alerting those in power to the imminent collapse of the construction/ engineering sector. The publication of such appeals indicates how toothless the PEC is that despite having a PTI parliamentarian as the recently elected chairman, the matter could not be brought to the notice of those in authority via any official forum.
The crux of the appeal is that the price of most construction material increased by 75 per cent to 100pc in the last six months but still government organisations insist on projects being executed on rates quoted six to eight months ago as many contracts do not have an escalation clause; where there is one, it is not reflective of the true increase in prices. Why is no one ready to take a considerate view? Because they neither care nor are they cognisant. Most government organisations involved in engineering projects are headed by CSS officers who know nothing about how engineering projects are executed. They have no awareness of how a small change has a domino effect on the health of an infrastructure project. Many engineers who work on technical positions under them are insulated from the real dynamics of projects owing to their permanent government job and are only concerned with the percentage of ‘commission’ they receive for signing various payment vouchers.
To put it in perspective, a government that reviews petroleum prices every fortnight to minimise the impact of variation on its own kitty is expecting individual firms to get projects completed on rates as old as 12 months. The construction and infrastructure engineering sector is the second largest employer in the country; the largest is agriculture. The recently announced Ehsaas relief package for the poor will accomplish nothing if this sector comes to a standstill which it nearly has on account of delayed decision-making to address the recent challenges the government is facing.
Construction faces problems but the government isn’t listening.
When sectors which create jobs and generate wealth are squeezed, the stress spills over to every household in the country. The government cannot provide jobs to everybody — real estate mafias are not employment-intensive and the services sector is fast shrinking as evident from the decreasing revenues of ride-hailing services. Needless to say, there is no industrial revolution on the horizon in Pakistan thanks to the policies adopted by clueless policymakers over the last many decades. So, the only sector that can generate employment is construction/ engineering and that is our sole hope for getting through these tough times.
Despite the alarm bells, the government is not taking action because governance in Pakistan is focused on expeditiously providing relief only to those groups that wield the threat of violence. A pertinent example is the journey of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan from a proscribed to an almost ‘prescribed’ organisation even after wreaking havoc in violent protests in Punjab recently. Similarly, the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, after taking the lives of so many Pakistanis and unleashing a reign of terror for years, is on track to get a clean chit.
At the other end, just a few months ago, groups of blind individuals took part in a non-violent protest for days on Mall Road in Lahore, demanding a quota in government jobs. They had no success. I am sure many people reading this article are not even aware of any such protest by the blind because the latter did not have the means to torture Punjab Police servicemen or burn a few vehicles to make the headlines. Had they been this resourceful, everyone would be talking about the importance of taking care of differently abled persons in Pakistan.
Lastly, it is good not to panic but at the same time it is imperative to be vigilant. Calmness while being well-informed is different from calmness due to utter ignorance. Further dilly-dallying on the provision of relief to the only employment-intensive sector in Pakistan will bring about unprecedented chaos. It is time to take some drastic measures, else we will turn into sitting ducks in the face of a looming economic crisis of epic proportions. Sitting ducks don’t panic, they are just eliminated.
The writer is a former civil servant.
Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2021