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Roads and power plants

Watching the prime minister inaugurate another motorway project reminded me of an earlier clip I saw of him during his visit to Europe a few months ago.

Before describing that, let me make clear that I have nothing against roads and highways as such, but would prefer to see more government attention to transport projects of use to the masses rather than automobile owners. And no, the metro bus is not what I’m thinking. It’s the railway that continues to flounder, and every new public-private partnership project involving the Pakistan Railways becomes the subject of smear and vilification campaigns in the media.

Here’s what I recall from the video clip. It was a single frame, of the prime minister, sitting in a room with a window behind him, and he was talking to a group of men. They were a vocal lot, this group. He spoke in short, halting sentences, and listed over and over again all the achievements of his government. And as he spoke, the group of men he was addressing kept up a steady chanting of approval. Wonderful sir! Pakistan is blessed to have a leader like you sir! God willing, your government will achieve even more this time sir! And so on.

 Is it too much to ask that the government’s vision be a little more in sync with the reality? And all the achievements he listed, every third one was the motorway. “We built you the motorway!” he would say, “have you seen it? Have you travelled on it? Have you seen how wonderful it is?”

The group being addressed answered every question in the affirmative, strongly so, virtually giving him an ovation after every claim.

He went on and on like this for almost 15 minutes, when the channel finally cut away. Of course, the clip was running on PTV. He seemed to be in his element, going on about all his achievements, in which the motorway was a crowning moment, and he basked in the company of sycophants before him nodding vigorously, matching his every word with a hurrah, and congratulating him at the end of every sentence. He was genuinely into it.

Once again, watching him speak before the assembled delegates following the inauguration of the Karachi-Hyderabad motorway, I was reminded of that clip, although this time round the chorus of the sycophants was not present, at least not as audibly so. But the motorway was there, in all its shining glory, as the prime minister went on and on about it and how his government, in its generosity, was now ready to share the wonders of this miracle with the people of Karachi.

“You’ve all travelled on the motorway from Lahore to Islamabad I’m sure,” he said. “Now you’ll be able to enjoy this experience from Karachi to Lahore too. Why not try going by road at some point? You can always take a flight, but why not try the joys of road travel at some point too?”

Does he think infrastructure issues are a joke? And what is with this fascination with the motorway? It has been made abundantly clear by now that roads and highways are not emblems of progress any more than the stock market can be considered an indicator of economic health.

Besides the motorway, another trope that keeps getting rolled out these days is the future investment planned in the power sector. We heard the finance minister telling the visiting IMF mission about that earlier this week, and then again the US commerce secretary at a conference that brings together Pakistani and American businessmen.

Now once again, let me clarify one thing first. This government has done a lot of work in stabilising a very bad situation that they inherited. Reserves have indeed risen, and the large-scale load-shedding that we saw around elections in 2013 has disappeared. But here the good news ends.

The finance minister is busy reminding everybody he meets that his government intends to instal 4,000MW worth of power generation capacity before their term ends, and another 7,000MW will be coming from the Chinese. One can only hope that arrangements for fuel supply and power transmission have been made so this investment doesn’t end up rusting away. Adding more generation to the system is proving to be a losing battle in a situation where the crisis lies actually in distribution and recoveries.

It’s a fair comment to make that Pakistan is a very hard sell as it is, and the government can only go so far to keep highlighting the problems. They must, as a rule, talk about their achievements and vision for the future. But is it too much to ask that the vision be a little more in sync with reality as perceived by the masses? Or reality as perceived by investors, who are likely to want to know a little more about these plans to generate more power than simply the megawattage involved?

Here’s one example to illustrate what I mean. At the business conference just referred to, one of the sessions was on the power sector. Unless the event has been misreported, one newspaper gave the details about this session thus: “The US businessmen were urged to provide investment in the overhaul of the electricity transmission system which … needs huge investment for upgradation.”

Did the government side, or whoever was doing the asking at this event, present a road map to bring market pricing of electricity into our market? Or do they intend to attract investment in transmission through upfront tariffs and fixed returns calculated by the regulator?

We’re coming onto two years since the election, and it’s high time this government stop acting like they’ve only just come into power. A little rhetoric is necessary sometimes for governments to pitch themselves to the outside world, but it’s a good idea to not believe one’s own rhetoric and PR spin too much. Reality has its ways of bulldozing through the hype.

The writer is a member of staff. khurram.husain@gmail.com, Twitter: @khurramhusain

Khurram Husain, "Roads and power plants," Dawn. 2015-03-12.
Keywords: Social sciences , Economic needs , Economic policy , Socioeconomic aspects , Transport projects , Motorway project , Post elections-2013 , Fuel supply , Economic health , Railways-Pakistan , Pakistan , Karachi , United States , PTV