PM’s knowledge economy vision still a pipe dream

Although more than 35 projects were approved last year, none have received any actual funds so far

Safdar Rizvi April 17, 2020

KARACHI: When Prime Minister Imran Khan sold Pakistanis the vision of Naya Pakistan, he dreamed of revolutionising the country on several fronts. While anti-corruption efforts and housing schemes hog much of the spotlight, they were not only facets to the Naya Pakistan dream.

An often overlooked component of the dream is to convert Pakistan into a knowledge economy – something the Premier Imran most recently spoke of in December last year. In fact, the prime minister even constituted a task force for this purpose with himself as a co-chairman.

But more than a year later, with billions of rupees pledged to the cause, this task force has little to show in terms of practical effort and projects that were to pave the way for the knowledge economy vision remain confined to government documents.

When it was constituted in January last year, the task force was assigned the job of ensuring the technology needs of the country’s various sectors would be met using locally developed solutions. Along with Premier Imran, the force is co-chaired by former Higher Education Commission chairman Dr Attaur Rehman.

According to sources, as many 35 different technology projects were green-lit around the same time as the task force was formed and the government pledged billions of rupees for them. Many of the projects were to be assigned to the ministries of IT, agriculture and industries along with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and HEC. But no actual funds for the project were released over the course of the last 18 months and with little actual work, the knowledge economy vision remains a pipe dream.

In what amounts to a missed opportunity, one of the 35 projects, if it had been developed, would have greatly aided efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic in Pakistan. The Artificial Intelligence in Health project would have allowed hospitals to use AI solutions to diagnose patients infected with the novel coronavirus, sources said. According to them, Dr Rehman handed over the project to the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) in Karachi.

When The Express Tribune spoke to Dr Rehman about this lack of progress, he admitted that no funds for any of the projects had been released yet. “We cannot begin work without funds. The projects were approved a while back but the budget was only approved four months ago,” he said. His statement contradicted what he told The Express Tribune last year, however: that both the projects and the budget for them had been approved.

When asked, Dr Rehman revealed that Punjab had initiated some IT projects. He remained mum, however, when asked about the tech projects assigned to other ministries. On questions regarding the AI in Health project, Dr Rehman referred The Express Tribune to ICCBS head Dr Iqbal Chaudhry.

The latter, when contacted, revealed that Rs300 million were approved for the project last year in November. “So far, the money has not been released. A special account has been opened to receive this amount but the process can take months. While we have issued tenders for equipment, without funds we can’t start working,” he said.

Speaking to The Express Tribune in July last year, Dr. Rehman said the Centre Development Working Party (CDWP) had approved a budget of Rs525 million in 2018-19 and Rs175 million in 2019-20 for knowledge economy projects. At the time, he said the government would establish a postgraduate centre for agriculture and health sciences at ICCBS in the first phase.”

Regarding AI health applications, Dr Rehman had said researchers were being sent abroad for training. Discussing the possibilities AI in Health could open, he said the project could provide solutions for everything from medical record keeping, automatic diagnosis and treatment, and even robotic surgeries.

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