The Public Sector Development Programme 2015-16, a Planning Commission document, includes a project described as Gwadar-Turbat-Hoshab Section (200km) of the Gwadar-Ratodero Road (892km) M-8. This includes Khuzdar-Shahdadkot-Ratodero (143 km), which will pass through Gwadar, Turbat and Khuzdar in Balochistan, and Kamber, Shahdadkot and Larkana in Sindh. It is attributed to the western alignment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. That it was approved in March 23, 1999, is another matter. More interesting than this post hoc attribution is the information that it was approved by the NHC. In the parlance of the Planning Commission, given the estimated size of the cost, projects are approved by the ECNEC, the CDWP or the DDWP. What, then, is this NHC?
To answer the question, we have to go back to the earlier tenures of the PML-N in the 1990s. The Sharifs were fascinated by the idea of motorways. The Lahore-Islamabad Motorway was floated as the first in a series of mega-projects. In the Planning Commission, the thinking was that the project was too large to leave room for other nation-building projects. Improvement of the GT road would achieve the same objective at a far less cost. As part of the Planning Commission staff, I held the same view.
Bobby, as the younger Sharif was then nicknamed after the trouble-shooting brother of John Kennedy, called me to the Prime Minister’s House for an informal chat. (He was a student when I taught at Government College, Lahore in the early 1970s.) He talked of motorways in England, the opening up of areas and the creation of jobs, and so on. Seeing that I would buy none of that, he made a statement that reveals in fullness the thinking of their royal highnesses: Did Sher Shah Suri submit a PC-I before constructing the Jarnaili Sarak (GT Road)? Lo and behold, no PC-I was submitted to the Planning Commission for the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway. Highways were taken out of its purview. The afore-mentioned NHC — National Highway Council — was baptised to approve the highway projects without any economic, financial, social and environmental appraisal. Headed by the prime minister, it was a forum higher than the ECNEC, which is headed by the finance minister. The NHA, the National Highway Authority, was created as its implementation arm.
There is thus nothing new about the PML-N’s disdain for the Planning Commission. The recent statements by two ministers are a continuation of the royal road to development. Khawaja Asif, the Minister of Water and Power, says: “If the Planning Commission had existed at the time, Emperor Shah Jehan could never have built the Taj Mahal.” It is not the roads this time, but energy. Wearing his other hat as the defence minister, he accused the Planning Commission of working against the national interest. “We need a fast and target-oriented system,” he said. This is exactly what the National Highway Council did in the 1990s. Not to be left behind, the other energy minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, also feels “that the Planning Commission should cease to exist as soon as possible if we are to move forward in resolving the key issues facing the country”.
The key issue facing the country is the effective use of public money to deliver affordable energy in the foreseeable future. If Nandipur and the LNG deals are any guide, the future is not very bright. Looking for a scapegoat in the Planning Commission, which is no more than a donor-funded slogan-monger, will not help. A first serious step may be the integration of the two energy ministries into one and the appointment of a minister with some real power.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2015.
Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.