Thursday May 23, 2024

Future directions

By Atta-ur-Rahman
August 31, 2022

As the floods sweep across much of Pakistan, they have highlighted the need for proper water management. It was in the 60s when President Ayub Khan built the Warsak, Mangla and Tarbela dams. Little work on new dam construction has been done in the subsequent 50 years.

In contrast China has constructed 80,000 large dams, and India has built over 5000 large dams while Pakistan has only two big dams. If Pakistan too had built about a thousand large dams, much of the water that is causing national devastation could have been stored and used both for agriculture as well as for electricity generation.

The country’s river systems are dependent on melting of glaciers in the snow-covered Himalayas and with global warming, increased flooding is to be expected both in terms of overflowing rivers as well as flash flooding due to unusually heavy rains, as has happened now. The water storage capacity of Pakistan in the Indus Basin is hardly 30 days whereas India has a storage capacity of about 200 days while in Australia and US this capacity is about 900 days. It is imperative that a well-thought-out water management strategy is urgently implemented as the present floods are likely to be a regular feature with further intensification over the next few decades, on account of global warming.

But dam construction is only one of the major problems facing Pakistan. The country has dismally failed to tap into its real wealth, our children, by neglecting education. Our planning ministry needs to drastically change the overall directions of the country to a technology driven knowledge economy. Innovation leading to creation of disruptive businesses must become the national priority. For this it is important to promote the venture start-up eco system.

Pakistan’s main problem is that its exports are at a miserable level of about $30 billion since we are exporting only low value textiles, agricultural products etc. We need to emerge from this low value trap and start manufacturing and exporting high value products such as electronics, engineering goods, automobiles, new solar energy technologies, pharmaceuticals as well as AI products such as those based on Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things etc.

To achieve this, a number of steps need to be taken. Our universities and research centers must integrate innovation and entrepreneurship into their programmes. Universities today are harbingers of change. They can act as the platforms from which thousands of successful start-ups can sprout up. Technology Parks need to be made an integral part of all universities, and government support to university budgets linked to their success in promoting new businesses and enhancing national exports.

One excellent model is that of the University of Cambridge. I know the university well as I spent over eight years there first for my PhD and later as Fellow of Kings College Cambridge. This association has continued over the last 50 years. A large Science Park is associated with Cambridge University which has been the home to thousands of new start-up companies in high tech fields. Established in 1970 by Trinity College, Cambridge Science Park is today Europe's largest centre for commercial research and development. Cambridge city is now home to some of the fastest-growing tech companies in the UK such as Darktrace, GeoSpock and more. These companies have been estimated to have an annual turnover of GBP2.4 billion.

There are huge opportunities in Pakistan in many sectors that remain unexploited including waste recycling, mineral extraction and processing, advanced agriculture and energy storage systems. Our universities need to be upgraded with high quality faculty, and technology parks established within them to foster new start-up companies. They should be given liberal research grants in both applied and basic areas of science, for technology development and for social sciences. The private sector has a pivotal role to play in these efforts by investing in Research and Development -- this is almost absent in Pakistan. The government can help jumpstart the private sector R&D efforts by giving tax breaks to industry investing in research and development.

The low priority given to science and technology by political governments in Pakistan as compared to military regimes drew the attention of the world’s top journal, ‘Nature’ in an article in 2007 entitled ‘The Paradox of Pakistan’. After lamenting about the poor status of the country, it praised the progress made by Pakistan in science and higher education under the military regime of President Musharraf in the following words: Commenting about the progress of science under military regimes, it stated: “Such governance may be undemocratic, but both science and education tend to receive more investment when the generals – backed by generous aid from the United States – are in power than when an elected party is in control. It is no accident that many of the country's scientifically most productive institutions were established during the US-backed army rule of General Ayub Khan, again under Zia ul-Haq's rule in the 1980s and now under Pervez Musharraf.”

The article also greatly praised the good work done by HEC when I was heading the Higher Education Commission as thousands of our brightest students were sent abroad for PhD degrees in order to improve quality by strengthening university faculty. These remarks made in an editorial by the world’s top science journal Nature must be taken seriously by the present government.

Pakistan today invests a shamefully low two per cent of our GDP on education with the result that we are ranked among the bottom 10 countries of the world in terms of investments in education. This needs to be immediately raised to at least five per cent of GDP with a third of this going to higher education, in order to rid ourselves of poverty and hunger and embark on developing a technology driven knowledge economy.

Pakistan is passing through its darkest hour after 1971. With political uncertainty, rising poverty, diminishing exports, faltering economy, one of the weakest judicial systems, and mass flooding there are many who feel that the country is now extremely vulnerable to international intrigues directed to fragment and weaken it. It is therefore important that we follow the paths adopted by Singapore, Korea and China to promote innovation and entrepreneurship and thus find solutions to our socio-economic problems.

The writer is the former federal minister for science and technology and former founding chairman of the HEC. He can be reached at: