Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif were prominent at the inauguration of the Rawalpindi-Islamabad Metro Bus system on Sunday. Speaking on the occasion, the prime minister said the government was working day and night for peace in the country. Talks with the Taliban would start in a day or two, the prime minister underlined (latest reports say this could be within 24 hours). Peace, Nawaz Sharif argued, was critically needed for the economy to grow and prosper. Terrorism was the result of the wrong policies of the past, especially those of military dictators. The cost to the country has been enormous. Countries that were once lagging behind Pakistan have surpassed us because we are bogged down in the affliction of terrorism. The prime minister bemoaned the lack of any considerable development project for the last 10-15 years. The economy, he asserted, is lately showing improvement and exports are rising. He revealed that he had instructed Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to keep the value of the dollar below Rs 100 so as to benefit exports. Terrorism, corruption, unemployment, indiscipline and poverty have become the order of the day, Nawaz Sharif pointed out. The government intends to eliminate load shedding by adding 22,000 MW to the national grid by the end of its term in 2018. The new Islamabad airport will be completed by next year, the Islamabad-Muzaffarabad rail link and the Lahore-Karachi motorway would be initiated soon, the prime minister promised. The over Rs 40 billion Rawalpindi-Islamabad Metro Bus project would be completed in the record time of 10 months, Nawaz Sharif vowed. Similar projects would soon be initiated in south Punjab.
Going by the speed of the earlier Lahore metro bus project, there is every expectation that the Rawalpindi-Islamabad project too would be completed with dispatch. However, cutting a bus route through built up areas and possibly green belts has always proved controversial. The Rawalpindi leg of the metro bus route will run on an elevated road to avoid as far as possible destruction of built up urban assets. In Islamabad it will run on the ground. However, the environmental concerns surrounding the project, especially in the Islamabad sector, refuse to go away. Legal challenges on the basis of such concerns have not been given relief by the courts because of national considerations, according to Shahbaz Sharif. Nevertheless the Capital Development Authority of Islamabad has been querying the start of the Rawalpindi leg of the route without clearing up its 12 reservations about the Environmental Impact Assessment Report by the National Engineering Services of Pakistan (Nespak). The green belts and cover along the Islamabad section of the bus route could be affected. Approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment Report by the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency is obligatory under the provisions of the Environment Protection Act 1997. Residents of Islamabad have voiced their concerns about the environmental impact, including on green belts and noise and pollution as a result of the plying buses. While dispatch is necessary for such projects to be competed efficiently and within budgeted costs, the country has to learn not to ignore environmental concerns if our cities are to avoid being converted into grey concrete jungles.
The Sharif brothers have traditionally been very keen on infrastructure projects, particularly motorways, roads, public transport, etc. These are of course important for economic development. But they tend to favour commerce and industry most, which may not be surprising considering that the Sharifs come from a business background. However, diversion of enormous funds to such projects means resources to fulfil the needs of the people, particularly the poor, are hard to come by. While such projects help improve the quality of the business environment in the country, the need to also improve the people’s quality of life through education, health and other social services and facilities cannot be underestimated. After all, what purpose does development serve except to enrich the already wealthy unless the quality of life of the people is also improved?*