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April 9, 2019

The mantra of mega projects


April 9, 2019

The ruling elites of developing countries have a strange fascination for capital-intensive mega projects that not only burden these poor nations with unimaginable mountains of debts but also deprive their people of much-needed basic necessities that could be provided to them with far lower investments. The ruling junta of Pakistan is no exception where every government – military or elected – resorts to such gigantic projects.

Some come up with expensive metro buses or trains instead of putting a few hundred buses on the roads to facilitate passengers, while others spring into action with a nationalistic zeal to accomplish extremely costly dams’ projects instead of thinking of much cheaper alternatives like filling natural aquifers. It is strange to see that the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, PPP government in Sindh and PML-N government in Punjab all opted for metro projects during their previous tenures. The three different governments also indulged in extravagant roads, underpasses and bridges besides pumping a huge investment into ‘safe city’ projects. The poor Balochistan government also replicated some of these projects in its resource-scarce territory.

Mega-projects have played havoc with the economies of third-world countries besides pushing millions of people into a living hell called daily life. Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Kolkata, Karachi, Lahore, Manila and several large cities of developing states have witnessed many mega-projects. But the filthy slums and inhuman conditions under which their marginalized sections are condemned to live fly in the face of the claims made by the ruling elites of these states that such expensive initiatives help alleviate the suffering of the people.

Quite contrary to such claims, these symbols of abject poverty are likely to witness a phenomenal increase. Conservative estimates suggest that globally around 900 million people live in slums today. However, most experts believe that if all types of informal settlements are included then the number could go up to 1.6 billion, one-fourth of the world’s urban population. It is estimated that one in four people on the planet will live in a slum or other informal settlement by 2030.

Several experts believe most of the mega-projects fail to achieve their objectives owing to various factors. An influential study conducted by Bent Flyvbjerg, an expert in project management at University of Oxford’s business school, has estimated that nine out of ten mega projects go over budget. Rail projects, for example, go over budget by an average of 44.7 percent, and their demand is overestimated by 51.4 percent. Other estimates suggest that bridges and tunnels incur an average 35 percent cost overrun; for roads, it’s 20 percent. Such projects are not completed on time.

The construction on the metro system in Salvador, Brazil began in 2000, but it took more than a dozen years for the first passengers to ride it; most of the work remained unfinished for years. It has taken New York a decade just to begin the $3.9 billion project to rebuild the 59-year-old Tappan Zee Bridge. In our own country various dams, and Peshawar Metro and Karachi Metro seem to have similar issues. The cost of maintaining these mega projects is also unaffordable for poor states.

And all this comes with huge social, environmental and in a way human costs as well. For instance, Pakistan has pumped more than Rs1400 billion into various motorways, underpasses, overhead bridges, safe city and metro projects in the last three decades (a staggering amount for a poor country like ours) but the much-needed social sector is yet to witness any substantial investment. For instance 42 percent population of the country has no access to basic sanitation services and 64 percent has no access to safely managed water sources.

The wider availability of water, sanitation and hygiene still seems to be a daunting task that no government has been able to achieve. It is estimated that 22 million people defecate in the open in Pakistan, which poses serious health challenges. More than 53,000 children under the age of five years perish every year owing to illnesses like diarrhoea caused by poor water and sanitation; and over four out of every 10 children are stunted. The country loses around Rs343.7 billion because of poor sanitation. According to experts, 42 percent of households in rural Punjab, 60 percent in rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 82 percent in rural Sindh and Balochistan are still bereft of an adequate drainage system. The N-League-led Punjab government was spending a paltry Rs48 billion on water, sanitation and health, which was increased to Rs72 billion in 2016-17, reflecting their apathy towards this crucial sector.

The phenomenon of mega-projects has also prompted successive governments to ignore decent housing provision to masses. According to a May 2006 paper by Arif Hasan, a prominent social researcher, planner and architect, Pakistan requires 350,000 new housing units per year for its urban areas. “The formal sector is able to supply only 120,000 housing units per year. The demand-supply gap is accommodated in katchi abadis (squatter settlements on government land) or through the informal subdivision of agricultural land (ISAL) on the periphery of cities and towns. It is estimated that nine million people live in katchi abadis in the urban areas of Pakistan and another 15 million in ISALs.”

Mega projects bring miseries to people in several ways. For instance, signal-free corridors in Karachi and expressways in densely populated areas of Islamabad have created immense problems for pedestrians, especially the elderly and women – besides increasing their travel time and forcing them to pay an exorbitant amount as fare.

The story does not end here. Most of the development projects only affect poor settlements or the colonies of marginalized sections of society. Our well-educated planners can never imagine a development project displacing the people of any gated community. It is always the bottom layer of social stratification that is immolated to appease the goddess of mega-projects. According to Hasan, between 1992 and 2003, around 25,438 housing units were demolished as a result of mega projects. Add to this, thousands of other houses that have been demolished since then in the name of development projects and anti-encroachment drives.

In the health sector all governments concentrate on spending billions of rupees on ultra-modern machineries or capital-intensive hospitals. For instance, Shahbaz Sharif’s government spent over Rs20 billion just on one hospital while the city was bereft of a water treatment plant, which led to the rise of a number of diseases. It may be important to set up a kidney or liver centre but would it not be wise to address the factors contributing to kidney and liver diseases? Provision of pure drinking water could address many health complications, including kidney and liver problems. Similarly, the establishment of water treatment plants in Karachi, Lahore and other major cities could go a long way in addressing a number of health-related issues.

Some of these things could be done in an efficient way. For instance 96,994 houses in Orangi Town built their neighbourhood sanitation systems by investing $1.57 million. For the same work, the local government would have invested $10.06 million and if the same project had been doled out to a private profiteer, he would have spent tons of money on it. Such investment brought health dividends as well. Infant mortality in areas that built their sanitation systems in 1983 fell from 128 to 37 in 1993.

One wonders why the government does not seek the help from the Orangi Pilot Project in matters of sanitation and housing or from Dr Adeebul Hasan Rizvi and Dr Shershah Syed in problems related to health sector. Every government tries to appease private capital, which keeps profit above people’s welfare and suggests capital intensive projects. So, the time has come for us to get rid of this rhetoric of mega-projects and focus on development plans that can bring relief to millions of Pakistanis who have never benefited from these costly ventures.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Email: [email protected]