Normally maligned for their inefficiency, corruption and lack of accountability, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that government officials are stars in their own right. Of course you know what stars are made of don’t you? Hot gases. The difference is that while celestial bodies dazzle the stargazer with their night-time twinkling, government bodies confound onlookers with their antics. And this week brought us interesting news of what the Government of Punjab is up to in the transport sector – thus bringing them into the telescopic crosshairs of an urban development expert.
Notwithstanding the general torture urban commuters have to endure on public transport in the Punjab, our government always seems to find new ways to make life interesting for citizens. But the honeymoon period for a newly elected government has been over for a while and just when you thought things couldn’t get much worse for commuters, along comes a new benefaction.
After many years of making empty promises to the public, this week gave our stars much needed reason to celebrate. The rejoicing follows the news that the Lahore Transport Company (LTC) is inducting fifty six new natural gas powered buses as part of an expansion of the urban transport system in the Provincial Headquarters. According to my namesake Khwaja Ahmed Hassaan who is the incumbent LTC Chairman, the company is implementing a plan to provide affordable and efficient urban transport system in Lahore for which not only will new buses be running from this week, but an additional order of two hundred additional buses has also been given to China.
So the great plan, then, stems from an overwhelming desire to do good by providing transport services for hapless commuters. But while actions may be judged according to intentions in the divine realm, the opposite holds true in the mortal world where many a well intended action has ended in disaster, malcontent and the inevitable transfer or posting. The latter holds true especially for mandarins in the Punjab Civil Secretariat who may want to read on before preening that new feather in their cap.
I know that our public sector institutions don’t really provide a conducive environment to truly express professional creativity, but they certainly don’t preclude the absurd or the asinine from escaping either. For it seems outrageous that on the one hand the government is touting public transport affordability and on the other equating affordability with luxury.
Let’s be very sure about what the provincial headquarters of Lahore really needs. According to some high quality analytical work funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the number of large buses has declined sharply from around a thousand to about three hundred over the last three years. Evidently, the Government of the Punjab had pretty much failed to win over private sector investors until the news of new buses came in this week.
So what exactly are we trying to achieve here. A new state of environmental consciousness? Green credentials for a wayward government? With the demand for public transport at an all time high, the business of running buses on natural gas is nothing short of greenwash for hapless commuters.
Faced with a crippling energy crisis that often results in electricity and gas load shedding, it is disturbing to learn that at time when unavailability of natural gas is forcing transporters to take vehicles off roads, the Punjab government has reached an agreement with the federal government to get the imported buses fuelled at specified stations during the gas holidays. This may be a small victory for the Punjab Government but what remains unclear is how the government intends to sustain the new buses.
Natural gas buses don’t just fill up at any old fuel station. They require considerable investments in energy infrastructure that allows for efficient refuelling. Yet, the LTC remains mum on whether they will ever need compressors, more clearance at fuel depots and the like. Apparently the government was so busy popping open the bubbly that they forgot to look into basic necessities of a gas powered transport system. As is normally the case whenever the government takes up the common man’s plight, officials prefer to act first and think later.
Perhaps if they had thought this thing through to its logical conclusion, the government may have opted for high quality diesel buses complemented by an enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance with emission and maintenance standards. But this would have been too easy. They have now decided to go the hard way and this will bring many unhappy surprises for the administration and the citizens.
The government should accept that greenwash will not solve our public transport problems anymore. Let’s just move people.
The writer is a consultant on public policy.