THE ROAD TO PARIS

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The development schemes in the entire province have been put on the back seat, as the major chunk, around Rs 66 billion, in the Annual Development Plan (ADP) has been put in the blocks. Sources allege that this has been done to meet the constantly increasing costs of the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS), Pakistan Today has learnt.
Punjab government revealed an Annual Development Plan of net development schemes of Rs 210 billion with special initiatives including the laptops scheme, green tractors scheme, packages for youth, women and regional planning for south Punjab. The government this year vowed to focus on the completion of ongoing schemes to avoid “throw-forward” and allocated a handsome Rs 124 billion in this regard. Interestingly, the documents reveal that more than half the amount, about Rs 66 billion, has been put in blocks, that is the amount has been reflected in the development outlay but without any corresponding scheme while the funds can be spent on the chief minister’s discretion alone.
Ironically, major blocks have been kept in most crucial sectors: Energy (Rs 8 billion), Regional Planning for South Punjab (Rs 6.5 billion), Roads (Rs 10.3 billion), School Education (Rs 6 billion), Health (Rs 4.4 billion), Water Supply and Sanitation (Rs 4.7 billion), Higher Education (Rs 2.2 billion) to mention just a few in the long list.
Sources allege that the blocks have been kept to meet the ever increasing costs of the ‘ambitious’ BRTS. The government allocated Rs 11 billion for the project earlier this year, however, the cost of the project has been constantly increasing from an initial Rs 15 billion to Rs 25 billion only so far as new bridges, underpasses and overheads continue to add on to the most ambitious project of the provincial regime. A senior NESPAK official, seeking anonymity, estimated the costs of the project to the tune of Rs 35 billion before completion.
To further prove the point, sources in the administrative departments reveal that the Planning and Development (P&D) Department has directed the departments not to touch the blocks whatever the urgency of any project might be causing the development schemes across the province to suffer.
“The most crucial schemes are from the health and education sectors, while recently the P&D issued directions for re-appropriation of funds for a new hospital with instructions that blocks should not be touched,” an official from the Health Department told on the condition of anonymity. A similar situation has been observed in other departments as well.
Provincial Finance Secretary Tariq Bajwa terms putting a huge packet in the development outlay in blocks a prerogative of the Planning and Development department, as “the finance department only shares the volume of provincial kitty to the P&D, which is solely responsible for chalking out development schemes within that ambit, allocating requisite amount to them or putting whatever amount in blocks,” he adds. Secretary P&D however refused to comment on the issue, while P&D Chairman Javaid Aslam was not available for comments despite repeated attempts at eliciting his opinion.
However, a senior official, on the condition of anonymity, said that the blocks had been created becuase the provincial governmetn was not sure if the fedral government would release the funds or not. “That is why the budget is called a statement of expected income and expenditures,” the official added.
Will you choose the BRTS over your car?
A lot of ambivalence still prevails around achieving the objective of the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) which is to convince commuters to prefer state-of-the-art public transport over personal vehicles.
The concept of the BRTS, globally is to reduce the number of cars on roads by convincing citizens to use public transport by providing rapid and high tech modes of commutation. Similar projects have been developed in various big cities of the neighbouring India as well. However, it has become a matter of concern whether the commuters on one of the busiest arteries of the metropolitan start preferring public transport over private vehicles, as more and more money goes into the most ambitious project of the Punjab government so far.
The rationale of the policy-makers is rooted in the assumption that most citizens prefer travelling on private vehicles only because of a lack of decent public transport and once a mode of commutation at par with international standards becomes available for the citizens, they will automatically shift. For similar reasons the width of the Ferozepur Road has been decreased, which has also invited the ire of many car users.
Talking to Pakistan Today, renowned environmentalist Rafay Alam said there were more than 200,000 people using the Ferozepur Road on each side every day, making it the busiest artery in the metropolitan. “It depends on how you want to measure the success of a project, whether in terms of people using it or the revenue generated,” he said to a question, adding, “in my opinion public transport is successful it makes the city more liveable and sustainable”. To another question he said there were some BRTS in the world which were making profits, Ahmedabad and Bagota being just a few cases. “We can only hope that it works,” he added.
Ahsan Manzoor, a banker from Model Town, said, “The outcome of the project is yet to come, but we suffer everyday having to go through the mess on the Ferozepur Road. I hope it is actually worth the trouble because it has added an hour’s time to my office everyday.” No other project has created such a huge diversity of opinions from different strata of society. Many people from the adjacent districts coming to Lahore resented such high spending on just one road in the metropolitan city, leaving the others on the backseat.
Many others wanted the same money spent on providing better health facilities.
“The condition of public hospitals in the city is no secret compared to private health facilities, while those in the periphery are deplorable. Instead of improving such a critical sector as health, government has focused on a road and has dug out the entire city,” Zeeshan Ansari, an advocate, said.
Some planners consider the project an assault on the aesthetics of the centuries old city.
“We proposed initially to the high-ups that such a long elevated passage even in front of places such as Data Darbar will ruin the aesthetic beauty of the city, but it fell on deaf ears. Spaces under flyovers become hide outs for drug addicts and area around Taxali is already notorious for such activities and will further worsen it,” a senior planner on the condition of anonymity said. However, many people anticipate the BRTS in the hope for a better public transport facility.
Syed Basharat, an academician, who commutes on the public transport says that the fare of the buses will decide it for many people because mostly people have to use buses several times a day every day. “But if a good public transport facility is available in the city, I will definitely prefer it over my private vehicle given it comes in time and is decent and comfortable,” he added.
Since no official has been willing to disclose the details of the project, nothing could be ascertained about the fare of the buses. However, the details obtained reveal that it will be subsidised by the government and buses will pile after every two minutes.