The lure of mega projects – Abdul Sattar

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Ruling elites of the world, especially those of the Global South, are in awe of large and mega infrastructure projects, pumping billions or in some cases even trillions of dollars into these capital intensive initiatives.

Such projects are considered the hallmark of modern civilization with economic pundits declaring them to be the solution to all the economic ills that have plagued the global economy. For them such projects could herald an era of progress and prosperity for both the developed and the developing world.

Such claims have greatly fascinated rulers across the world, prompting them to focus their attention on these expensive schemes. For instance, India spent a whopping $8 billion on the Sardar Sarovar Dam alone. Currently two more giant projects worth over $110 billion are also being undertaken by New Delhi. In addition to that, the second most populous state on the earth also planned in recent years to pump around $500 billion dollars on infrastructure projects annually until 2030. This is on top of the billions or possibly trillions of dollars that India may have spent over the last four decades.

However, despite all that colossal spending, India’s human development indicators are still shameful, with easily preventable diseases killing around two million children every year, half of the population without toilet facilities at home, over 500 million bereft of pure drinking water, 1.77 million homeless and more than 243 million people living below the standard line of poverty officially (unofficially, the number is estimated to be over 600 million). Such projects may have appeased a tiny rich minority of Indians who were showered with lucrative business contracts but the majority did not benefit from these initiatives.

The Pakistani ruling elite was also mesmerized by these expensive development schemes. The trend started in the aftermath of the policy of liberalisation and deregulation launched by the first government of Benazir Bhutto in 1988. Since then, almost every government has tried to accomplish some sort of large or mega project. It is believed that such projects leave a great impression on public imagination, helping political parties win elections. They are also used as a tool of propaganda and heralded as symbols of development and prosperity.

Former PM Nawaz Sharif’s much-vaunted motorway was hailed as a symbol of modernity. Sharif never tired of repeating the mantra of development projects. One would hardly come across any speech of Nawaz Sharif that did not mention the various mega projects his government undertook during different tenures. With the passage of time, other prime ministers and political parties also emulated him, launching large construction and development projects to woo the people. Now even in hospitals we can find extremely expensive machines for which properly trained operators are not available. If they develop a technical fault, it cannot be rectified because the staff does not have the required technical knowledge. Safe cities, the network of underpasses and bridges and construction of motorways seem to be on the priority list of every government now.

The PTI emerged as the biggest opponent of such projects. Imran Khan lambasted the PML-N government for squandering public money on what he called worthless projects but since coming into power he has also been showering lucrative contracts of such projects on various companies and entities. In recent months, he announced a development package of over Rs700 billion for Karachi, over Rs400 billion for Sukkar and parts of Sindh and over Rs300 billion for Gilgit-Baltistan. And it is not only the federal government that is undertaking such large projects; provincial governments are also allocating colossal amounts of public money for roads, underpasses, bridges and other infrastructure schemes.

Every political party is trying to take the lead in this mad race for capital intensive projects, trying to give the impression that it is the biggest champion of launching such capital intensive initiatives. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently announced that his government had allocated more money for development projects aimed at improving infrastructure in Balochistan than any government in the past. Former Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal retorted that his party government had sanctioned more than Rs300 for the National Highway Authority. There are also dissenting voices in Balochistan that no political party wants to listen. For instance, former senator Sana Ullah Baloch often visits schools that are without boundary walls, hospitals without medicines and proper staff, and debilitating government buildings. The former senator has also mentioned the acute shortage of water in the mineral rich province. It is surprising that mega projects catch the attention of the ruling elite but infant mortality, faltering health systems, miserable conditions of educational institutes, lack of sanitation facilities and poor housing don’t feature anywhere in the priority list of the ruling elite.

According to some estimates, more than Rs1400 billion have been spent on different large and mega projects since 1988. If we add the three packages that Prime Minister Khan announced for Karachi, Sukkar and Gilgit-Baltistan then the total would be around Rs2900 billion. Such a massive amount would have drastically improved the human development indicators of Pakistan. Keep this colossal amount of money in view and think of other major problems faced by the more than 220 million people of this land. For instance, more than 67 percent houses in the Islamic Republic are without a concrete roof, more than 44 percent of the children are stunted, over 20 million children are out of school (the majority from Punjab), over 35 percent farmers are landless, over 60 million people are living below the standard line of poverty, 80 percent diseases in Pakistan are still waterborne and thousands of children die every year owing to easily preventable diseases that might be wiped out with the help of a few billion rupees investment.

The virulent wave of death and destruction in India is a lesson for those who want to save human life by spending on the people. Despite spending billions of dollars on infrastructure, the largest democracy is now scrambling to prevent this lethal onslaught of the contagion that could have been avoided by investing in the debilitating health system and improving the living standards for the vast majority of the Indian poor.

The situation is not rosy in Pakistan either where, despite spending billions of dollars on various infrastructure projects, especially on road networks, the rate of accidents is continuously rising, the shortage of water is still acute in several parts of the country, even after costly hydro power projects. For instance, the initial estimated cost for the Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project was only Rs84 billion but it was completed at the whopping amount of Rs510 billion. It is time political parties stopped romanticizing these capital intensive initiatives and focused on the welfare schemes that could alleviate poverty, provide pure drinking water, improve sanitation, wipe out poverty and make health facilities easily accessible.