Going green, seeing red

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The governments claims of going green are amusing to hear, especially when one considers the poor track record of Pakistans environmental stewardship. We may sometimes notice the public walks, banners and the odd speech from public representatives, but most of the lip-service paid does little to stop the pollution, wastage and mismanagement of resources. Although some of us have the luxury of being insulated from environmental damage, our collective amusement quickly turns to alarm when we hear of special projects that claim to protect or conserve the environment. Sometimes bold and ambitious, it turns out environmental projects in the public sector always seems to follow a similar path where incoherent and hastily articulated policies end up being implemented in a manner which is more detrimental to the alleged beneficiaries than originally intended. Normally more interested in pouring concrete, when our government does start behaving like a tree-hugging hippy straight out of Woodstock, we wonder what green substance compels it to be so eco-friendly? The smoke, it seems, always seems to be rising from the offices of bureaucrats finding new ways to promote the public interest by serving (and failing) the taxpayer. The strange smell of defeat even hovers over fair Karachi and its beleaguered CNG bus pilot project.

Sometimes we can blame project failure on the institutional mix as was witnessed in the Punjab throughout Lahores stand-off between the provincial and city governments. Karachi, however, was until recently considered to be a place which enjoyed healthy inter-governmental relations and where socio-economic priorities were more or less aligned. Despite the marriage of convenience between rival political parties, one wonders how such an important project can start to stink. The answer, it appears, lies in how the project was conceived rather than how it was implemented.

Black smoke and particles from diesel bus exhaust are such a nuisance that our government would go to great lengths to get it out of our sights and minds. While it is appreciable that CNG is a cleaner fuel, it is still a hydro-carbon and has an environmental impact mostly in the shape of ultra-fine invisible particles. Although it gets the black smoke of diesel out of our face, it should come as no surprise that a modern diesel bus that is well maintained is no less harmful to the environment than a CNG bus on its best day. Despite this knowledge, the decision makers in Karachi insisted on inducting CNG buses to reduce the plumes of black smoke from diesel buses. What seems not to have been considered were the onerous financial obligations, market readiness and alternatives available at the time.

In a bizarre twist of the environment turning on the economy, the government planned to induct CNG buses into a system that demanded more than just your ordinary CNG stations. Several millions in public funds and a few ribbon cutting ceremonies later, the governments eco-friendliness exacted a heavy toll with the bill for capital expenditure and infrastructure development being picked up by the taxpayer. Barely a year has passed since its inauguration and cost cutting measures are already underway with facilities being shut down, workers getting laid off and buses going off the road. Such is the fate of projects designed by a bunch of babus and their bevy of sycophantic technocrats.

Common sense would have dictated a very different course of action where the government may have embarked on a multi-pronged strategy for fixing the public transport sector. Investments could have been made first and foremost in an inspection and maintenance program for the thousands of diesel buses and wagons already plying on the road before encouraging a fuel switch in the economy. This would have meant some compromises but the right mix of economic and regulatory incentives would have put the pressure on the transporters and manufacturers to upgrade an aging fleet of vehicles. The government could have provided immediate relief by subsidizing the procurement of modern diesel buses and cracking the whip on transporters to ensure their maintenance. As a last resort, the government could even have had a chat with the Iranian oil smugglers to insist on cleaner diesel fuel from across the border. Common sense would also have dictated that political mileage be drawn from moving people effectively, rather than by selling us greenwash. If only common sense would prevail in departmental committee rooms, where could we be as a nation?

Instead of dabbling in costly experiments, the government should be satisfied that Pakistan boasts the highest number of private CNG vehicles in the world and is attracting global investment in its infrastructure. In a land where roti, kapra, makaan have not materialized for the common man, mixing a basic need such as public transport with an environmental extravagance makes a heady and unpalatable cocktail that few are willing to imbibe.

The writer is a consultant on public policy.