Mr Fawad Chaudhry’s article titled ‘Punjab on the precipice’ published in these pages on May 15 needs a detailed response – either in the form of a point-by-point rebuttal or by an overview of the Punjab government’s performance in key sectors. Opting for the second approach will automatically lay bare all the facts, and show some of the weaknesses in Mr Chaudhry’s argument.
The phenomenal progress made by Punjab under the leadership of Punjab Chief Minister Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif is evidenced by independent surveys, reports of multilateral agencies such as the DFID and World Bank, and assessments by respected publications such as The Economist, Bloomberg, and The New York Times.
Mr Chaudhry wondered as to where the public money, as much as $10 billion in his view, was spent in Punjab. For his information, the funds meant for the people have been spent on their welfare by uplifting their standard of living and improving governance so that public services could be delivered at their doorstep in an efficient manner.
Before I walk my colleague through the various mega projects that Punjab accomplished, I would like to say that, thanks to the chief minsiter’s most transparent governance, Punjab saved a mammoth sum of Rs682 billion on different development projects. This feat was achieved by the recovery of stolen assets and hard-nosed negotiations with the lowest bidders. When was the last time any government managed to bring such laurels to the country? The money so saved was spent on the provision of basic facilities to the people of Punjab, particularly health and education.
For the education sector, budgetary allocations were increased by 500 percent during the PML-N government. Around 200 new colleges and 10 universities including four women universities, an IT university, and three engineering universities were established. Under the Punjab Education Endowment Fund, which is Pakistan’s only endowment fund, 350,000 scholarships worth Rs17 billion were awarded to the deserving and talented students of Punjab as well as Pakistan. At least 16 Danish schools set up in different districts of Punjab, but mainly in southern Punjab, have imparted Aitchison-level quality of education to almost 10,000 students of lower income households.
Under the Zeevar-e-Taleem Programme, which is a girls-only stipend programme, a monthly stipend of Rs1,000 is being provided to 500,000 girls of secondary school belonging to all 16 districts of southern Punjab. The chief minister led a relentless campaign for child labourers that resulted in the enrolment of more than 89,000 children in schools from brick kilns. Another 44,000 schools were provided missing facilities and more than 7,400 dangerous buildings were reconstructed. The government also recruited 250,000 educators purely on merit in public schools.
Moreover, Punjab’s health sector witnessed a whopping increase of 525 percent in the budget since 2008. The government introduced the Punjab Drug Act 2017 to improve the quality of medicines and tackle their counterfeit production. Three new medical universities and four new medical colleges were set up during this period. A multi-billion rupee project by the name of Pakistan Kidney and Liver Institute and Research Centre was set up in the province. Under the PKLI, state-of-the-art hepatitis filter and treatment clinics are being set up at the district level.
The 370-bed Recep Tayyip Erdogan Hospital in Muzzafargarh has been set up as a premier health institution – its capacity will be enhanced to 500 beds. High quality medicines, procured centrally from world renowned companies, are being provided free of cost to poor patients in public hospitals. The government has carried out the revamping of 40 District Headquarters (DHQs) and Taluka Headquarters (THQs) hospitals to provide the best medical services to the people. The health insurance programme has successfully been launched across four districts, whereas beneficiaries from 13 additional districts have already been enrolled as part of the widening of the social safety net in terms of health services to be provided to the poorest of the poor.
Speaking of agricultural interventions, because a major chunk of Punjab’s economy is based on rural economy, Rs3.2 trillion were disbursed as agriculture loans, Rs77.6 billion were spent for development of agriculture and, for the first time, as many as 103,000 farmers were awarded interest-free loans from 2008-18. The reforms in agriculture sector resulted in an increase in yield, 60 percent decrease in total cost of pesticides, 55 percent increase in the off-take of DAP, 70 percent decrease in total cost of farm water, nine percent decrease in cost of fertilizers, 12 percent increase in the off-take of urea, 21 percent increase in the distribution of indigenous improved seeds and marked increase in exports of different items.
Another very crucial area, central to the development of Punjab and Pakistan, is energy, where Punjab led a national effort in bottling back the genie of loadshedding. The Punjab government added a total of 5,353 MW of electricity to the national grid in the last five years. The efficiency, transparency and commitment with which these projects were completed remain an inspirational story. It is important to note that Punjab developed its capacity to set up and operate mega power projects. The 1,320 MW Sahiwal Coal Power Plant, the flagship project of CPEC, was completed in a record time of 22 months that earned the province the title of ‘Punjab Speed’.
Punjab is the first province that has employed information technology as a pillar of its governance. The Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) has led the digitisation process at a mass scale. The idea was to improve service delivery and transparency, and cut down corruption and red-tapeism. The Land Records Management and Information System (LRMIS), Health Management Information System (HMIS), and IT reforms in police the department are some examples of the IT interventions that have brought about a massive transformation in service delivery. The distribution of over 400,000 laptops and tablets among students is part of the efforts to bridge the digital divide and encourage students to make most of these facilities.
A look at Punjab’s economy shows an increase in GDP growth rate from 1.9 percent in 2008 to six percent in 2018. The provincial development budget increased by 230 percent, whereas provincial tax receipts shot up to Rs210 billion per annum. Around 1.4 million new jobs were created in a span of 10 years since 2008.
Any neutral observer cannot miss the strides Punjab has made over the last decade. Punjab, under Shehbaz Sharif, has earned a name for itself by breaking new grounds and setting new benchmarks. People are wise enough to judge who fed them on rhetoric and who served them with passion and commitment.
The writer is a special assistant to the chief minister Punjab and is also the spokesperson of the Punjab government