Governance and development are meaningless if they do not improve the lives and wellbeing of the citizens. Human development is a multi-dimensional endeavor that is composite and aggregate. In a pluralistic society, difference of opinion is a given. Opposition to development is a global phenomenon. History is replete with examples where a minority view has always opposed development -- all development! Punjab is no exception. Let’s jog our recent memory. From the Motorway to the critically important China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), all have met with their opponents. The recent Orange Line Project is another case in point. It was but expected that a trailblazing, cutting edge mass transit project of this nature would evoke reactions from certain segments of our polity. While genuine concerns are absolutely welcome and must be allayed, it's the absurd, anti-progress propaganda that must be repelled with full vigour. Criticism, in a democracy, is a healthy phenomenon, but when it blends with anti-people, anti-progress rhetoric, it begins to feed into a disruptive agenda. We as a nation need to remain alert and cognizant of this drift and must stand guard against such negative patterns especially when they emanate from segments of society that shall be the least likely beneficiaries of the project.
Orange Line is primarily attacked for its ‘choice’ as a project and its financial viability –- both pieces of criticism are seriously flawed. Selections of projects in Punjab are guided by their economic benefits and viability, passing through a vigorous regime of approvals and above all are guided by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s all inclusive development vision for its people. As such arguments against this people friendly landmark project are either being fed by the ‘ignorant’ with little or no knowledge of facts or by vested interest that is likely to lose politically once the first passenger boards the train.
Urban mass transit is not a luxury. It's a necessity. Imagine the cost of gridlock on choked streets that would only grow in the absence of efficient mass transit. Imagine the pollution, toll on human health, human hours lost, loss in productivity and absence of a dignified and efficient mode of transport to 300,000-500,000 people each day over 30 years? When calculated the number rises into staggering billions of dollars in lost time and productivity. Mass transit projects therefore, are selected after intense studies that take all of these challenges into account.
These projects are then distilled on the anvil of economic viability and green-lit for implementation. Mercifully we have these complex multi-layered project vetting systems in place in our country. Orange Line has gone through due process and only then got approved as a project. Like all expensive pieces of infrastructure, mass transit systems are subsidised globally. Be it London or Toronto, Buenos Aires or New Delhi the subsidy is embedded in the system as an investment by the state, fully appreciating that all mass transit systems are active levers of economic growth that bring back into the regional coffers a quantum multiplier by means of efficient movement of the citizens. The alternate to any mass transit project is not ‘more cars on the streets’. It's a laughable argument and were it to be true we would not have seen the expansion in urban mass transit systems across our planet.
Universally, projects like Lahore Orange Line cost within the range of $50M-100M per kilometer. Orange Line will cost under $55M, which is closer to the lowest end of the price spectrum. Hopefully this fact will silence those who maliciously dub it as the most expensive metro train ever built.
In the same breath, it’s very important to remember that Lahore Orange Line is being 100 percent financed by a Chinese soft loan and is totally project specific. It was our option whether to accept it and build a world-class transit line for our generations of riders or not. We believe that the majority of people of the province whole-heartedly support our choice for having gone for it.
Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif is acutely sensitive to the fact that priorities like the Health and Education sectors and initiatives like Saaf Paani Project, Land Record Management System and the massive Farm to Market Roads Project cannot be sacrificed to any other urgency. Orange Line does not eat into any department’s development or operational budget. Any insinuation to this effect is baseless and stands completely rejected.
The economy of Punjab is directly linked to the prosperity of its people. Only a population that is better educated, healthier and that benefits from modern services and efficient infrastructure can compete in today’s world. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his government believe in multi-faceted, all-inclusive development where no sector is left behind. This government strives to change lives for the better. Public choice exercised by elite is often in the service of elite. Punjab government has demonstrated its preference for common citizens –- be it provision of education, delivery of health services, support for farmers, welfare of labour, livelihoods for jobless, skills for youth, affirmative action for women, protection for weak, succor for minorities, and scaffold for the disabled. Orange Line is yet another testimony of its resolve to prefer trains over cars; buses over luxury jeeps and ordinary citizens over the privileged. This preference is now irreversible -– the beneficiaries of such public welfare interventions are demanding more and more. The government stands with those who would ride in the compartments of Orange Line and not with those who wish to ply more Mehrans on congested urban roads.
The writer is Minister for Finance, Punjab