The hidden cost of infrastructure development

Published: March 21, 2011
The writer is an environmental lawyer and member of faculty at LUMS and Punjab University

The writer is an environmental lawyer and member of faculty at LUMS and Punjab University

Some politicians in developing countries are of the opinion that foreign investment is key to stimulating the local economy. Foreign investment is flown in and, to impress it, shown large highways, tall buildings and bridges as proof the nation is capable of doing something with the money it will receive. When the money comes, it is spent on more highways, tall buildings and bridges. This is the ‘development’ we are familiar with in our parts, but are we familiar with just how much such ‘development’ costs?

Just over a decade ago, then Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif undertook two ambitious road infrastructure projects along the Canal Road in Lahore: the Jail Road and Ferozepur Road underpasses. They were built because, we were told, they would solve the traffic problems of the city. Since then, under Pervaiz Elahi, many more underpasses and overpasses have been built along, over and under the Canal. They were all built, we were told, to solve the traffic problems of the city.

In the past 15 years, the following has been the cost of the infrastructure added along the Canal: Jail Road underpass (1994) Rs55 million, Ferozepur Road underpass (1996) Rs174 million, Punjab University New Campus underpass (1998) Rs330 million, Mall Road underpass (1993) Rs243 million, FC College underpass (2004) Rs288 million, Doctor’s Hospital underpass (2004) Rs196 million, Jinnah Hospital underpass (2004) Rs. 190 million, Punjab University underpass near Hostel No 2 (2005) Rs98.6 million, Punjab University underpass near Hostel No 14 (2005) Rs98.6 million, Gulzar underpass (2007) Rs. 489 million, Shalimar Interchange (2010) Rs3.6 billion. This comes to a total of Rs6.3 billion spent on road infrastructure along the Canal Road in Lahore alone. The list excludes the billions spent on the Mughalpura underpass and Thokar Niaz Beg overpass, as I do not have their details. Nor does this figure include money spent on other road projects in Lahore.

Have these billions of rupees spent on just one road in Lahore resulted in an improvement in the traffic in the city? Has it given boost to the economy? Has it improved the environment? Can we look at these constructions and say the city of Lahore is safer, more beautiful, sustainable, liveable? Take a look at any city street and see for yourself. Be stuck in slow-moving traffic (nothing out of the ordinary in a large city, by the way) along the Canal and ask yourself if the money spent could have been put somewhere else. Think, for a moment, you did not own a car, like the vast majority of Lahoris.

The Punjab government is in the middle of a traffic survey being conducted in collaboration with the Japan International Cooperation Agency. The preliminary findings of the study, which is comprehensive, indicates that there are no more than 400,000 cars and a little of 800,000 motorcycles in the city. It reveals that nearly 65 per cent of the population of the city lives in little over a crammed 10 per cent of its footprint (the majority space is taken up by elite residential housing schemes which are, as a result of the sprawl they thrive on, automobile dependent). It reveals that nearly 40 per cent of Lahoris do not have access to automobiles and walk to work.

It also reveals, and this needs to be explained, that Lahore has a comparatively low number of trips generated for a city of its size and population. Usually, in large cities which are well-planned and well-run, there is a multiplicity of transport options available to citizens. They can walk, they can cycle, they can take a taxi or a rickshaw, they can take the bus or ride on a rapid mass transit system. Even escalators and elevators that move thousands of people an hour are a form of transport available. In Lahore, there is no multiplicity of transport options. Either you have access to a car or motorcycle or you brave the bus or take a rickshaw. Because so few people have access to cars, because so few people can afford to commute on rickshaws every single day, because public transport is non-existent, what the lack of transport options means is that women, children, senior citizens and the handicapped are effectively trapped at home. They cannot travel unless they have planned well in advance. Thus the low trip-generation count and, much more worrying, the violation of citizens’ fundamental right to mobility.

What Lahore needs is a great public transport system. What Lahore needs is to give its residents the ability to move about free and unhindered. The power of mobility in spurning the economy is well-known. What Lahore needs is clean air and safe streets. What Lahore needs is a secure source of drinking water; hospitals to treat its sick and schools to educate its children; public libraries so that children too poor to afford a meal at a restaurant or to be allowed into a shopping mall or private club can spend time in what my friend Enrique Penalosa calls “Temples of Knowledge”.

It is nearly universally recognised that the traffic congestion problems cannot be solved by building new roads. It is universally recognised that traffic congestion must be managed by a combination of investment in public transport (including taxi services), the rationalisation of parking fees, congestion charging, soft traffic management, demand management, better use of existing facilities, avoiding VIP traffic congestion and enforcement and implementation of traffic regulations. Has any of this ever been done?

None of these things have happened because the powers that be spend billions of rupees a year on infrastructure development that benefits a minority automobile elite. This money also benefits a vast network of stakeholders involved in the design and execution of these works (has anyone wondered why Nespak can only build ramp overpasses and not column overpasses, which are cheaper and take less space?).

The recent and hastily put together and poorly thought out plan by the Punjab government to allocate Rs1.2 billion for this financial year, and a total of Rs2.852 billion, for the construction of an overpass at Kalma Chowk is just another example of a long trend of misallocation of resources. The powers that be, blind by their vision of what will attract foreign investment and perhaps win them an upcoming election, look only towards adding more and more expensive infrastructure. The cost of this single overpass is three per cent of the development budget for the entire province. The engineering and execution contracts have been awarded without open bidding and in violation of Procurement Rules. The allocation has been made as if Pakistan did not suffer from a catastrophic flood just last year. It has been made as if there is no reconstruction or rehabilitation work that urgently needs to be done in other parts of Punjab. It has been done, as we have been told before, to solve the traffic problems of the city. When will we realise we’ve heard this joke before?

Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2011.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • A Suhail
    Mar 21, 2011 - 1:28AM

    Another gem of an article from Mr Rafay. The moment one leave Lahore its depressing to see people living in extreme filth without portable water, access to hospital etc etc and here we are spending billions on an overpass that will insure that few rich people can get to their homes a little faster. The author’s earlier article on the same subject was slammed by some on the comments columns and few also called him a “nut job” and how the author has no idea what he is talking about. Well the numbers and research results provided above should open the eyes of citizens of this neglected city that more underpasses are not the answer and only a dedicated public transport system will solve the traffic issues. In lahore we build underpasses worth billions while in south punjab kids have no schools to go to. I say we are a strange lot!!Recommend

  • Mar 21, 2011 - 1:47AM

    All these projects that you list our were implemented as examples of quick fixes. The inconvenience that there construction causes reminds everyone that the government is doing something. Its a monument to supposed government achievement that they can point to at election time. We are repeating the mistakes of scores of metropolises across the world, building infrastructure that deprives access to the majority to not even add to the convenience of the minority. What a waste; Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong all garner accolades for there smooth efficient transport systems. Can we join those cities please? Soon Lahore and Karachi or going to look like Mexico city and Rio, large urban centers with massive highways yes cars move at a snails pace, where the majority walks 15-20 kilometers a day to get to work. Recommend

  • Ali
    Mar 21, 2011 - 3:07AM

    Yes, education has taken a back seat in Pakistan. I alsways thought it was odd that under Nawaz Sharif Pakistan was one of the first countries in South Asia to build motorways, yet we had the lowest literacy rates!!!
    It was money that was as usual, poorly invested by an inept leader.
    Look at countries that have been successful (especually India) The first thing that they done was to invest in their human capital. Once they had a reasonably well educated work force they started to tackle infrastructure issues.
    Infrastrucutre issues are easily addressed and quickly solved if the funds are available.
    However educating the masses is a much more tricky/difficult job. I think Musharraf made some progress here. The PPP and PML-N were just as useless then as they are now!Recommend

  • A Thinker
    Mar 21, 2011 - 6:29AM

    Well said.

    Just one big gaping hole in your analysis. You seem focussed on Lahore and at the end you include Punjab viz a viz development of a country. You begin your write-up with foriegn investment in the country, however, by country you meant Punjab and specifically Lahore.

    It is not the army or the mullah that has destroyed Pakistan. It is the Lahore-centric approach of its biggest and most enterprising population group known as the Punjabis.

    One day and the day is not far we will all hit our graves and those of us who have racism equivalent to a mustard seed in our heart, would be DENIED paradise. Paradise is a HUGE price to pay for Lahorophila.Recommend

  • Commando (rtrd) Musharaff
    Mar 21, 2011 - 9:47AM

    An excellent article! I have argued on the same topic with friends and people on forums alike on the same issue. We have spent too much resources on white elephant like lahore-islamabad motorway that only benefits very few people and does nothing for the awam.Recommend

  • Sarjeel
    Mar 21, 2011 - 10:37AM

    I`m sorry were you not saying earlier its abt the environment. Then you came to the cost of the project and even go on to suggest an alternative model (column underpasses?)…You did not think this through

    “Infrastructure is for foreign investors”…really?…are u not trying to bank on an average Pakistanis hatred for all that is foreign?

    40% of Lahore is on foot, the elite have taken up much of the residential areas 65%…really?…what are u propogating…you know some countries have “hate laws” I`m so sorry we dont

    Why does everyone want to be Che Guevara? Your solutions cost more than your problem but I think you already know that

    Your convoluted method of presentation is no more than an attempt to confuse people…gather some stats to maybe denote some authencity and then paint a biased one sided picture…Please inform the readers your writ petition in Lahore High Court to stop the construction was dismissed and if you have choosen to take this matter to the public well Good Luck with that…Most of the readers of this ENGLISH newspaper are the ones youve already offended you champion of the poor make no mistake abt that… Recommend

  • M. Tauseef Barlas
    Mar 21, 2011 - 10:55AM

    nothing good will happen despite of huge number of columns. Recommend

  • Mar 21, 2011 - 10:57AM

    Splendid details on the lack of proper planning by the on going governments of PunjabRecommend

  • Nawaz M
    Mar 21, 2011 - 11:13AM

    this article is what happens when the judges dont listen and the government doesn’t give a hoot about people anymore. what are our cities coming to. save us imrana tiwana!!!!Recommend

  • Ahmed
    Mar 21, 2011 - 12:20PM

    Our goverments have no idea what the word development means.They cannot think beyond, streets, sewerage lines, and roads. The mega projects are overhead bridges.

    A large number of people witnessed in Islamabad that building Underpasses, and overhead bridges did not solve problems totally. In the end, Islamabad raffic Police had to use Traffic engineering ie., closing few signals and turing them into U-Turns, etc. That solved problem better than high-cost underpasses and Overhead bridges. A large number of people realised at that time that many costly projects were not necessary at all.

    However, the real infrastructure, about which no one cares in Pakistan is investment in technology. Now, we are lagging far behind in technology as compared with regional countries. We do not have new industries and industrial infrastucture, Power Infrastructure. If government cannot do anything a its own. It should provide financing to private sector for these infrastructure projects.

    Electrical indutry in Gujrat and Gujranwala and Textile industry in Faisalabad is a living proof that Pakistan can develop more industries. Recommend

  • naeem sadiq
    Mar 21, 2011 - 3:12PM

    Well said, and I fully agree.
    The money spent on similar projects in Karachi is even more obscene with yet poor results.

  • sharma
    Mar 21, 2011 - 5:56PM

    pakistan has lot of money with citizens.The only way to control inflation and support high saving rates is to tax them high!!

    lower the money with citizen=>lower the demand=>more the banks have =>higher infrastructure growth in the state

    high taxes avoid hoarders and middle men who like to put up the inflation!!Recommend

  • Abid Ali Chohan
    Mar 21, 2011 - 7:39PM

    well the whole scenario seems to be protecting and safeguarding the 20% elite and if u analyse deeply most of our policies go that way..governments give a damn to what local interests are and what sort of infrastructure local conditions demand
    This is the quest of measuring up to the vision of the capitalism and as Kamil Khan Mumtaz says;
    “Problem is not that they dont have any vision but the problem is the VISION they have”Recommend

  • Dr. Mahmood Ahamd
    Mar 21, 2011 - 9:22PM

    Good article, depicting issues how we allocate our funds, we talk lot about poverty alleviation, in fact these costly and lumpy infrastructure projects crowd out funds needed to provide basic needs of the poor like feeder roads, clean water and proper drainage. Comparing with similar projects in other countries, I feel that traffic count on our motor ways are still not enough to even recover maintenance cost, some one correct me if I am wrong. Further, most of these large projects like motorways and ring roads needs funds to maintain and that’s where the real problems starts, for example we have built one of largest irrigation system in the world, but do we have funds to maintain it, the answer is big no, the shocking part is that no one is paying for replacement cost and part of O&M cost. The government has been deferring this issue for future generations, without realizing that economic growth and it sustainability depends on water availability. Another case is the rapid pace of infrastructure development in Islamabad— so many avenues built to facilitate the elite’s fast movement, the rationale policy would have been to use the same or part of the funds to built rapid transport system (mono rail or other rapid transport mode) between Islamabad and Pindi to provide decent and cost effect transport to large number of poor and middle class who commute every day. These big projects come with certain level of economic growth, which in my view is premature.

    Writer is Resource Economist (water) based in IslamabadRecommend

  • Zarrar Niazi
    Mar 22, 2011 - 10:36PM

    I think this is a very relevant article as it highlights the significant problem of transportation and its related ingfrastructure – or the lack of it- in Lahore. However, i would like to respond to Mr. Sharjeel for his complete misunderstanding of the issue and a misplaced response that seems more like a rant! ( no offence intended )
    Firstly, environment and economy are intricatley related issues, with the latter fundamentally being a subset of the environment, as there will be little scope for economic or social devloment without a clean and stable environment. It is also important to understand that any development project should have at its core, solutions, that will improve the conditions of a large majority if not all the possible stakeholders involved. Needless to say, such heavy expenditures achieve little in this regard. I think as a resident of Lahore one does not really need stats to know about the percentage of people travelling by motor vehicles of any type, a careful glance at the roads and streets should suffice – unless ofcourse we refuse to look beyond the elite neighborhoods of cantonment e.t.c.
    As rightly pointed out by the author, the city like anyother major metropolis in the world needs a proper transport system, humane and respectable enough for all and sundry to use. If the purpose of building such mega projects is to ease the traffic situation, the city will be better served by coming up with strategies to reduce the traffic in general, not divide it in more lanes. An objective that can be only achieved if more and more people choose to travel by an effective public transportation system.
    As far as the issue of hate laws are concerned, please also note that many countries have laws that specifically state that any projection / action must not be carried out if it causes significant damage to the environment. I hope you will understand that such projects which will involve felling of many trees, reduction of green areas in a city, and above all the use of 1,200,000 cars will cause significant strain on the environment.
    As for the issue of column overpasses, it is only simple economics that if a smaller and cheaper project- which in this case happens to occupy less space too- can do the same job as the more expensive one, then it should be implemented. In this case, we could use the saved money to spend in many other areas in need of development, or at worst invest it in building materials and technologies for the same bridge, that are more environmentally sound!
    With regards to the honorable court system in our country, the less said the better.Recommend

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