111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

Robbing the highway

“Together, the united forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear – United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.” These words by President Dwight D Eisenhower are still music for leaders seeking national integration and development equity across their countries.

Highways networks are effective means of surface connectivity, functioning as a cementing force for territorial integration, economic activities and growth. Unfortunately our current rulers cannot understand such intricacies.

Eisenhower emphasised that the government should only build roads and the rest of the US would be developed by the people themselves. So he pushed his scheme of the Interstate Highway System by surmounting every hurdle from non-cooperating states, particularly excusing the arrangement of matching funds, to convince the Congress to increase federal share by 90 percent for the project.

The Chinese leadership also employed the same strategy of building roads, rail networks and establishing economic zones around them to bring underdeveloped areas into the development loop.

The logic behind designing the Pak-China Economic Corridor is first to shorten and secure its oil and other imports route and to create economic zones and opportunities in its northwestern regions.

China imports 60 percent of its oil from the Gulf States, which reaches China after covering a distance of 16,000kms. This distance will be reduced to   2000kms from Kashghar to the Gwadar Port. Besides, China sees the proposed Pak-China Economic Corridor as not only the shortest but the safest and most feasible route for its exports, imports and economic activities.

Secondly, the Chinese leadership is striving to use economic incentives to counter the separatist East Turkistan Islamic Movement in the northwestern Xinjiang region by turning the area into a hub of economic activities through the economic corridor. This project will reverse the established order whereby Shanghai will receive supplies and send exports to the Middle East, and west and Central Asia via this route.

The original design of the highway (economic corridor) was Kashghar to Hassanabdal passing through Mianwali, Dera Ismail Khan and Zhob to Gwadar. This was a windfall opportunity for the most underdeveloped and less integrated regions stretching from the northwest to the south.

While driving past the area, a person does not need extraordinary economic and development expertise to conclude that Mianwali, a Pakhtun populated area, is a backward area in Punjab. Similarly, Dera Ismail Khan, just across the Indus, also depicts a gloomy picture. And onward from Dera Ismail Khan the region up to Gwadar tells a story of deprivation and backwardness.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is bearing the brunt of terrorism and tops the list in terms of human casualties, destruction and economic losses. Similarly, the Pakhtun-Baloch province is also reeling under conflict and deprivation.

These regions deserve special attention and care by the federal government. Instead of designing such vital projects for such fragile regions, our leadership seems to be unable to look beyond its nose.

They are hell-bent on denying opportunity to the most deserving regions and have decided to change the route to the corridor. The federal government changed the Hassanabdal, Mianwali, D I Khan, Zhob to Gwadar route by diverting it to Lahore via the motorway to Multan and ultimately Gwadar after criss-crossing parts of Sindh. The new proposed route is 1000kms longer than the original route.

First our Planning Commission under Ahsan Iqbal blamed this change in the original design on the Chinese government. The Chinese ambassador, Sun Weidong, denied any change in the original route by his government. Senator Abdul RaufAhsan Iqbal and MNA Abdul Qahar Wadan of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PakMAP) called on the ambassador to brief him on the issue. Maulana Fazlur Rehman also raised the issue. The ambassador promised to convey their grievances to his government.

Later, the minister of planning and development came up with another clumsy explanation that ‘the government was now following the eastern route because it was one of the few early harvest components of the corridor project’ and will save resources. The minister ignored the simple calculation of how much the 1000kms shorter route would save in terms of energy resources and time annually.

How can one expect vision, planning and development from such wizards for a country confronting multiple challenges? Overcome by short-sightedness, they forget that investment will be provided by China which should be utilised for creating new economic and development zones in the underdeveloped regions for the sake of strengthening the federation.

Perhaps changing the highway route towards Lahore-Multan is to divert the economic zones associated with the project to industrialised Punjab at the cost of national unity.

Besides, due to the concentration of industry, job opportunities, services and the ensuing rural to urban migration, metropolitan cities – particularly Lahore and Karachi – are turning into urban monstrosities. Such unplanned expansion poses management, services delivery and environmental challenges with consequent socio-political issues. To address such challenges, instead of shrinking the development net, it should be expanded to the underdeveloped areas that can help reverse migration which will in turn reduce pressure on the metropolises.

By now, our leadership must admit that religion cannot be the only cementing force of national integration. At present extremism and radicalisation pose a serious existential threat to the state than any other element.

It speaks volumes of the vision of a leader who is reducing himself to a provincial status. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, along with his National Action Plan, should also use such economic and development tools for eliminating terrorism and advocating national integration that can strengthen the federation. This strategy of diverting economic and development opportunities to the east and allowing madressahs, Talibanisation and militancy to mushroom in the north-west and south is no longer workable.

The writer is a researcher and a native of Swat.  Email: talimand.khan@gmail.com, Twitter: @talimandkhan1

Talimand Khan, "Robbing the highway," The News. 2015-02-09.
Keywords: Economics , Economic relations , Economic growth , Economic planning , Economic development , Highway networks , Policy making , Gwadar port , Government-China , Imports-China , PM Nawaz Sharif , Maulana Fazlur Rehman , Dwight D. Eisenhower , Abdul Rauf , Ahsan Iqbal , Pakistan , United States , Karachi , Lahore , Sindh