Sunday April 21, 2024

Barriers to progress

By Mian Salimuddin
March 28, 2019

Electronic and print media is full of rhetoric by government functionaries about the serious obstacles withholding the country’s progress towards an industrialised and prosperous state.

Amongst the favourites are corruption, water scarcity and overpopulation. I believe that all these issues are just symptoms of a fundamental but fatal flaw in the system of governance. Proponents of these barriers to progress have got their cause and effect mixed up.

Take the case of corruption, which is largely an effect of a weak, inefficient and incompetent judicial system. There are over 3,50,447 cases pending with the superior judiciary; the figure runs into millions in the lower courts. Some cases have been pending for 30-40 years.

The judicial system has allowed politicians to remain in office under extended stay orders. There are many other such situations which have led to corruption being normalised by the justice system.

The present system is no better than a sieve which allows criminals either to get away scot free, or obtain bails or stay orders for an indefinite period. A strong and competent judiciary can reduce the level of corruption by handing out timely and severe punishments to law violators irrespective of their position in society.

Contrary to common perception, the number one problem is not corruption, but the failure of the government to undertake massive and immediate reforms in the judicial system, particularly laws on bails and stay orders.

When we come to the issue of water, much has been said about the construction of huge dams at astronomical costs with completion times –of between 7 and 10 years. In the meantime, all cheaper and economically viable solutions to improve the efficiency of existing water storage systems are being ignored.

A former chairman of Wapda recently disclosed that some years ago Wapda had planned 100 storage dams at very low costs – to be available in 2-3 years’ time. This measure would not only have ensured availability of water when needed, but also reduced the intensity of floods which ravage the country every year with billions of rupees losses.

It is amazing the even after the disastrous Neelum-Jhelum Hydro Power Project, people are still hankering after mega dams. According to the auditor general of Pakistan’s report, the cost of the Neelum-Jhelum project increased from Rs15 billion to Rs414 billion rupees – an increase of 400 billion rupees. A bigger damage, and gone almost unnoticed by the press, is that due to the delay in completion of the project, Pakistan lost the case to India in the International Arbitration Court on the water rights of River Jhelum.

The cost of electricity generated by the Neelum-Jhelum project has been fixed by the government at Rs13.24 per unit for the first 20 years. This must be somewhat of a record for hydropower generation. If that is not bad enough, Wapda has recently filed a petition with the government to maintain the tariff of Rs13.24 per unit over the entire 50-year lifespan of the project.

On the one hand we are clamouring for mega dams notwithstanding the dismal record of such projects, while on the other hand no attention is being paid to the efficiency and performance of the existing water storage and generation systems. Tarbela, Mangla and Chashma have collectively lost 40 percent of their storage capacity with no remedial measures in sight.

A number of studies indicate upto 30 percent conveyance losses in earthly canals and water courses. Application losses in the fields are around 25 percent – 40 percent due to the use of obsolete irrigation practices by the farmers.

There are, therefore, so many opportunities to improve water availability that we should think twice about going head on with economically unviable mega projects. Let’s adopt the Kaizen concept of continuous and incremental improvements to our existing water sources. Mega projects by all means, but only after we optimise the utilisation of the existing water systems, and have the expertise and money to undertake such projects.

Coming to the last impediment to progress, overpopulation, as usual hype and rhetoric again shields the real problem. A study by a US think tank a few years ago pointed out that any country with a population of over 100 million can pose not only an economic threat to developed countries but also a military threat because of its manpower being available both for industry and military service. Another study concluded that a country with a large population and varying geography and climate is potentially a rich country. Pakistan has a large population, fertile plains, deserts and snow-covered mountains.

The issue is, therefore, not about over-population, but over-population of unemployable manpower. It’s only a matter of providing appropriate skills to this large pool of unemployable manpower to change the face of Pakistan. Unfortunately, organisations established to impart skill-based learning have not delivered. Navtec and Tevta both need to be completely restructured and manned by highly motivated and competent professionals.

It may be of some interest to note that O/A-level courses elsewhere in the world include a number of market-driven vocational subjects – the idea being that all those who are not heading for universities can qualify for the job market. So, instead of lamenting about the large population size, let’s create world-class skill development institutes; the focus must, however, shift from higher education to skill development.

To conclude, what are being projected as impediments to progress are really the effects of a system of governance which is in need of drastic improvement. Looking at the effects only is like chasing shadows and will get us nowhere. The problems will remain and keep surfacing from time to time. The solution lies in identifying and putting an honest effort towards removing the major causes for corruption, perceived water shortages and unemployable manpower.