Making sense of the CPEC controversy — III

Published: February 11, 2016
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar and an alumnus of the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

The writer is a Rhodes Scholar and an alumnus of the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

In my previous articles on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, I deconstructed the government’s claims about having prioritised the western route of the project as well as critically examined the various justifications advanced by those defending the prioritisation of the eastern route. In the concluding part of this series of articles, I aim to examine the way our public policy is developed and the trade-off that often occurs between concerns for equity and those for efficiency. Specifically, I will deconstruct the public policy paradigm underlying the arguments advanced in favour of the eastern route.

Public policies aimed at regional development have traditionally tended to focus on the trade-off between equity and efficiency. Most of the arguments advanced to justify the prioritisation of the eastern route of the CPEC are based on the technocratic efficiency-based criterion. There are three major flaws in this line of reasoning.

First, the efficiency-based criterion ignores the history of past injustices and the absence of a level playing field between the developed and the lagging regions of the country. Pakistan inherited regional inequality from the colonial period. The British had strategic interests in contemporary Balochistan, Fata and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and therefore developed only the infrastructure that was vital for defence logistics. In contrast, they had deep economic and political interests in Punjab and Sindh. The infrastructure developed in these regions favoured agricultural growth and industrialisation. After Pakistan’s creation, the post-colonial ruling elite did very little to undo economic and political inequality among the different ethnic groups and regions. Power asymmetries among ethno-regional groups reinforced regional disparities and ensured that resource distribution remained biased in favour of Punjab. The fact that Pakhtun representation in the military and the bureaucracy significantly increased and they became economically integrated didn’t significantly alter the regional development equation owing to two factors, the first being that the institutional interests of the establishment and the bureaucracy favoured a centralised state apparatus and the expansion of the overall national pie, with little concern for its regional distribution. In addition, the economic integration of Pakhtuns was primarily a result of migration to Karachi and urban centres of Punjab, meaning that indigenous growth remained stymied.

Second, given that Balochistan, Fata and K-P have been mired in conflict for the last two decades, it is high time that development of these regions was prioritised and a Marshall Plan of sorts was developed to lift them from deadly conflict and poverty traps. Denying them development on grounds of poor security and infrastructure is an insult to the resilient people of these regions who have disproportionately suffered in the ongoing conflict. According to data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 58,855 people have died in terrorist violence across the country from 2005 to 2016. Out of these, 42,094 casualties have occurred in Fata and K-P alone, followed by Sindh with 7,732 casualties, Balochistan with 6,010 casualties and Punjab with 1,972 casualties. In proportional terms, Balochistan, Fata and K-P together account for 82 per cent of the total fatalities that occurred in Pakistan between 2005 and 2016. Besides the loss of human lives, the sociocultural, economic and political fabric of these regions has been destroyed. Islamabad is adding insult to injury by leaving these regions to fend for themselves in economic competition with the developed regions of the country, thus reinforcing the political economy of violence and the self-sustaining cycles of poverty and conflict.

Thus, it is against this background that equity acquires great significance not only for reducing regional inequalities and sustaining growth in the long term but also for lessening power asymmetries and inter-group tension and conflict. However, unfortunately, in developing countries like Pakistan, tackling inequity is an almost insurmountable obstacle because it often requires working against the interests of the national elite, challenging vested interests and speaking for people who are ignored and excluded systematically by those making policy.

Third, even if the strictly efficiency-based principle is followed, it won’t necessarily and inevitably result in an outcome that favours the prioritisation of the eastern route. Instead, a comparative cost-benefit analysis of the two routes could conceivably lead one to make a case for prioritising the western route. Here are some arguments:

1) The western route is the shortest; 2) the costs of land acquisition and dislocation compensation are much lower along the western route compared to the eastern route; 3) many bridges will have to be built on the eastern route compared to the almost negligible number on the western route given that the former passes through rivers and canals; 4) the eastern route is vulnerable to floods in monsoon and has the ‘fog’ problem in winter; 5) the development of the western route will help create new growth centres and reduce the economic burden on the relatively-developed big cities, thus putting a limit on existing patterns of migration; 6) the marginal return on investment in terms of improvement in living standards will be much higher on the western route compared to the eastern route; 7) security costs will be lower along the eastern route but that is offset by the inter-provincial discord and weakening of federal integrity that may result from the current design of the CPEC; 8) strategically, development of the western route will mean the addition of a safer communication line compared to the eastern route, which is closer to the Indian border and therefore vulnerable in case of an attack.

Based on the above arguments, it won’t be unfair to say that it is not the efficiency-based technocratic criterion alone that has created the current crisis. Instead, it is the political preferences of the ruling party and its obsession with the 2018 general elections that explains the discriminatory design of the CPEC. The PML-N may succeed in appeasing its political constituency and secure victory in the 2018 elections but that is likely to happen at a great cost to the already fragile federal integrity.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2016.

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Reader Comments (9)

  • Fazal safi
    Feb 12, 2016 - 12:40AM

    Hence proved, all of our top leadership are lying.
    Nawaz Sharif you will be remember as the creator of an another Baluchistan. Recommend

  • Woz ahmed
    Feb 12, 2016 - 1:31AM

    Very crisp and clear thoughts, sadly I expect no change, east will continue to hog all resources.Recommend

  • bogus
    Feb 12, 2016 - 5:23AM

    Sometimes you can’t see the forest through the trees. Maybe someone should look at whether a road to China makes economic sense before fighting about how to route it? Most of the discussions assume that China is desperate to move product through Pakistan – but that doesn’t make much sense when you look at the logistical issues involved. If China thought this was a strategic necessity they could have done it without arm twisting 15 years ago.Recommend

  • Faraz
    Feb 12, 2016 - 11:01AM


    The Chinese or for that matter forward looking societies do not think short-term, or till the next general elections. They plan and execute projects keeping in mind the future decades. The logistical issues might appear to be problems for now, but in the larger scheme of things the CPEC project has strategic importance for many reasons. The real benefits of this project will be realized after a decade or so. Recommend

  • abreez
    Feb 12, 2016 - 1:31PM

    Why the bluff master and his team is destroying Pakistan’s future is a very big question and it will remain a big question in years to come but world economy is witnessing slowdown and a longer slowdown will hurt everyone. A longer slowdown will increase poverty and ultimately hunger and diseases in the world, therefore world cannot afford a loner slowdown. Now everyone is witnessing effects of global warming and world cannot ignore this phenomenon any longer. Proxy wars will create sufferings and those sufferings will change psychology of future generations as sufferings of WWI and WWII changed the psychology of European people and after WWII Europe never witnesses a war. If the bluff master thinks that he’s playing with the future of Pakistani people, actually he’s playing with his own future.Recommend

  • Feroz
    Feb 12, 2016 - 5:17PM

    I fully agree with the authors line of reasoning and argument. Economic opportunities need to be conceived and developed where they are most needed, rather than most convenient. Electoral calculations should not be made a factor while conceptualizing projects like CPEC.Recommend

  • bogus
    Feb 12, 2016 - 11:30PM



    The Chinese or for that matter forward
    looking societies do not think
    short-term, or till the next general
    elections …. The real benefits of
    this project will be realized after a
    decade or so.

    Right – so a road that makes no sense today is somehow to make sense sometime in the future when transportation alternatives are moving away from roads. That’s your theory?Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Feb 13, 2016 - 2:59AM

    Notwithstanding the merits of the proposals made by the author, it is a pity that time and energy have been wasted by the Government and the people of Pakistan for years in discussions and debates about develoment projects which favour one or other but not all units of the country in most instances, instead of addressing the fundamental question of how one achieves a parity among provinces in the standad of living long term without foregoing prioritisation of projects in the country alone on merit.
    The parity among the provinces can be realised by an amendment in the constitution, establishing a transfer union among its remaining provinces of the country, similar to how the post war reconstruction of the federal republic of Germany was carried out and is desired now by some for the European Union..

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Baseer Agha
    Feb 13, 2016 - 10:48AM

    Fully agree with arguments presented by author. But this reasoning at this stage is no longer workable as CPEC route has been finalized long before we (Pashtonkhwa & Balochistan) could work on it. Recommend

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