A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signing ceremony in Lahore was held with the Secretary Economic Affairs Division (EAD) Tariq Bajwa, former chairman of the Federal Board of Revenue, representing Pakistan and the relevant official from the Chinese export-import bank representing the Chinese government.
Two cabinet ministers flanked the Chief Minister Punjab, notably Ishaq Dar the Finance Minister and Ahsan Iqbal the Minister for Planning, Development and Reforms. The MoU envisages a Rs 162 billion soft loan for the construction of the Orange Line Metro Train in Lahore.With the EAD Secretary signing the MoU one would assume that the federal government has either provided the guarantee for the loan or has procured the loan for on-lending to Punjab.
This is indeed unfortunate as no such soft loans are in the process of being negotiated for any of the other provinces. In addition, the attendance of the two federal ministers – one heading the ministry responsible for providing the guarantee for the loan and the other for planning infrastructure projects – would no doubt further reinforce the perception that the Sharif administration in the Centre is favouring the Sharif administration in Punjab over that of other provinces.
Or in other words, this latest signing ceremony may fuel the feeling of being on the back-foot by provinces where the PML-N has been unable to form a government as well as increase the mistrust between the federation and these provinces.
One would hope that the federal ministers as well as provincial governments prioritize scarce resources with the focus on clean drinking water, education and, health facilities over and above transport projects.
The question of prioritizing scarce resources has, no doubt, been legitimately raised by activists, including Malala Yousafzai and the chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Imran Khan. Malala while launching her campaign ‘Books not Bullets’ during the Oslo Summit on Education for Development, in July this year, stated that “If the world leaders decide to take one week and a day off from war and weapons, we can put every child in school.
Books are a better investment in our future than bullets. Books, not bullets, will pave the path towards peace and prosperity.” While in this country the operation Zarb-e-Azb is widely supported and believed to have produced dividends, an operation requiring bullets, yet one can unhesitatingly vote in favour of prioritizing investment in education in Punjab as opposed to on the Orange Train. Imran Khan in a recent speech has also supported education and clean drinking water as priority expenditures over and above the Orange Train project.
In addition, it is baffling why the country’s Finance and Planning Ministers would publicly lend support to a project like the Orange Train for a city that already has the metro bus given the numbers unable to access clean drinking water, health and education facilities especially in the underdeveloped south. Who is more aware of the scarcity of resources and the difficulty to tax the political elite and the resistance of traders to pay due taxes on their income than the finance minister?
One would expect that he would not support, at least publicly, such skewed priorities. One would have hoped that the Planning Minister, too, with a vision that spans well beyond two tenures would have expressed some concerns with respect to this public transport. Mega infrastructure projects should be supported in the energy sector given the acute shortage but not for a train line especially in the presence of the metro bus service.