Economic corridor hit by controversy

The reported proposal of the Pakistan government to the Chinese government to change the route of Khunjerab-Gwadar economic corridor was vehemently opposed by the opposition senators during the ongoing session. The original route was planned to pass through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) to Zhob and then onwards to Quetta, however, the new route would almost bypass the two least-developed provinces of Pakistan. The government had previously denied a change in plan as did Ahsan Iqbal during the Senate debate though few believed the denial.

Haji Adeel of the Awami National Party (ANP) called on China on the floor of the House not to “accept any changes in the original route” and threatened that “we’ll not let anybody build this corridor if changes are made in the planned route.” He pointed out that the ANP had not only successfully opposed One Unit but also construction of Kalabagh dam and that the party would launch a similar campaign against any altered route. While ANP was routed in the 2013 elections due to poor performance with survey results at the time indicating that the most corrupt government between 2008-13 was widely believed to be the one run by ANP in KPK yet, with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) sitting outside the National Assembly for several months, the mantle of responsibility to safeguard KPK interests appears to have been taken up by the ANP.

Study after study indicates that the proliferation of terror activities and new recruitments by terror outfits are facilitated because of poor social sector development in these regions as well as a lack of employment opportunities. Terror outfits can thus easily lure new recruits into their ranks through promise of cash. A way out is to develop these regions and what better way to undertake development and provide jobs than to begin implementing large infrastructure projects in these regions.

At first glance, the decision to bypass these restive regions may have been taken given that they are severely security challenged compared to Punjab, however, the federal government should have first consulted these provincial governments for their input before making the proposal for a diversion in the planned route to China. The federal government’s responsibility is for the entire country and not just a province that may have voted the government to power and the new route requires no further clarification as it includes Hassan Abdal, Lahore, Multan, Sukkur, Hyderabad, Rato Dero and Gwadar.

Be that as it may, Haji Adeel raised another disturbing element of the proposed diversion of the route: the total length of the original route was 2681 kilometres while the proposed change would increase the length of the route by 1000 kilometres with an obvious impact on the cost of the entire project. This defies logic given the fact that the government is severely strapped for cash and can easily, once it succeeds in resolving the prevailing revenue crisis, ensure connectivity of the corridor with Punjab’s major cities. Granted that the money will be provided by the Chinese but it would have to be repaid and therefore the project components require a more careful cost-benefit analysis than appears to have been made.

The government can, of course, claim that it has the prerogative to make changes as it deems appropriate. And given that it has a simple majority in the lower house it can pass any finance bill that it wants. That is certainly true, however, this does not imply that the government should not go through the motions required in a democracy namely to open discussions on a change in route either with the provincial government, and granted that it may not wish to engage with the PTI government in KPK given the two parties’ ongoing confrontation, yet it ought to have opened an informed debate in the assembly to meet the basic requirements of democracy.