Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has greeted the whole nation after the Supreme Court of Pakistan allowed the Punjab government to continue work on the Orange Line Metro Train project in Lahore, which had been halted by the Lahore High Court near 11 heritage sites. With the future of the ruling party being uncertain, the future of the project still hangs in the balance.
Being touted as “another feather” in the cap of the ruling party, the Rs200b project, being built with a Chinese loan with a markup of 3pc, will be a new addition to a long list of loss-making institutions of Pakistan. The next government will have to withdraw the subsidy to make the project feasible. Pakistan has already a number of institutions which make losses worth billions of rupees. They include the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), Pakistan Steels Mills and Pakistan Railways, which devour Rs500b annually. Over Rs16 billion subsidy on the train project every year will overburden the national exchequer. The Punjab government is already providing a Rs1.8b billion annual subsidy on the Lahore metro bus service. Launched at a cost of Rs30 billion (critics say it cost Rs70b) on a 27-kilometre-long route, the bus service is causing a daily loss of approximately Rs5 million to the government while the Turkish company operating the buses has almost recovered its cost within a year, according to figures by the Metro Bus Authority. A passenger pays Rs20 for one-way travel while the government has to pay a subsidy of Rs40.
Besides, the government is providing a Rs2b subsidy annually on the Islamabad metro bus. According to the subsidy sharing formula, — calculated on the basis of ridership and length of track by the Punjab Metro Bus Authority (PMBA) — the Centre pays Rs1.2 billion and the Punjab Rs0.8 billion annually to keep the bus service running. Of the total length of the metro corridor, 8.5km falls in Rawalpindi and 13.9km in Islamabad. It cost the nation Rs44.2 billion. The total annual subsidy on the metro projects is over Rs20b. Besides, the government will have to pay a hefty markup on the loan for the train project.
The biggest flaw in the train project was that its details were kept secret from the public by the ruling party. First, the Punjab government said it was part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Later, it said it was a gift from China to the people of Pakistan. Calling the loan a gift, with about 3pc markup, was a cruel joke on the people. The loan is very costly, considering recession in the world and loans offered by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) at much lower rates. In 2006, the interest rate on the original loan for an underground train project, negotiated with the WB, was 0.3pc. But and the PML-N government scrapped the underground project, planned by the then Punjab Chief Minister Pervaiz Elahi, and took a new loan at a hefty interest rate.
The Supreme Court has set harsh conditions for the Punjab government to carry on work on the project, which will be difficult to meet, if monitored strictly. Under the conditions, the government will have to make arrangements to ensure the monuments remain stable and undamaged in all respects during the execution of the project, as specified by the Housing Industry Association (HIA), and study of control of vibration, noise and foundation. “In case, it is found that vibration levels at any stage of the construction or operation are exceeding safe limits, construction work/operation shall immediately be discontinued and remedial action shall be taken to ensure that such levels are brought down to acceptable limits,” the court ruled. It also ordered the presence of technical experts at the sites during the construction phase. An independent and experienced conservation engineer shall be appointed to monitor the project, both during the construction and operation phases. On completion of the project, the train shall be operated on an experimental basis for at least two weeks on the entire length of the route and vibration levels shall be monitored to ensure that they are within the acceptable limits. Commercial operation will not commence unless written clearance is given by experts, confirming that vibration levels have consistently been found to be within acceptable limits. The speed of the train shall be reduced near the monuments and modern vibration measuring equipment will permanently be installed at suitable places near the heritage sites. Special teams of experts will periodically inspect the historical places to detect any damage or deterioration. Proper records and logbooks will be maintained for the purpose. All future projects which directly, indirectly and incidentally involve heritage sites will be widely publicized through the print and electronic media at least six months before the proposed date of commencement of the project and public hearings shall be conducted to hear objections. For all future projects, NOCs, licences, approval and permissions, as required by law, shall be obtained before work on the project site is commenced.
According to the Punjab government, the train project will wipe out opposition parties in the 2018 general election, because 300,000 passengers would use it daily. The ruling party wants to complete it at the earliest. Building motorways, roads and bridges is the vision of development of the ruling party. Many people of Lahore also buy it. For them, these are the epitomes of development and progress, while education, health and a fair justice system form the basis of development in civilized countries. The project will also open a window of opportunity to opposition parties to cash in on popular sentiment as it would affect businesses and houses of about 25pc of the population of Lahore. Even if completed, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif could not be able to inaugurate it because of the Hudaibiya Paper Mills money laundering case and the Model Town massacre case. It is said there will be a stampede in the ruling party and the federal and Punjab governments may collapse in three months and the train project will not be able to revive a derailed party.