A project so huge it invites anxiety and awe alike, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is nothing like Pakistan has ever seen before. Promising concrete carpeted highways to the tune of $60 billion, special industrial zones, energy projects said to generate around 9000 MW of electricity, the government was bound to be enthusiastic about the “game-changer” plan. The whole country is. But the very fact that Pakistan’s silver lining has not yet ushered in the prosperity it repeatedly promised is an undeniable cause for concern.
Despite Prime Minister Imran Khan regularly waging rallying cries of delivering on the ambitious project at “any cost,” his bureaucracy does not appear ready to live up to his expectations. Abject unproductivity echoed across Wednesday’s meeting of the CPEC cabinet committee that ended within minutes. Even after being sternly warned in a previous meeting that failure to remove irritants for fast-paced execution of the CPEC projects would be brought to the premier’s notice, the ministries returned with nothing but time requests. This momentum in carrying out the multi-million dollar project is being regularly questioned by both local opposition and international rivals’ campaigns.
CPEC’s star player, Gwadar Port and Free Zone, continues to suffer from official backlog despite being functional for one year. The federal revenue bureau has still not defined Gwadar Free Zone policyand Customs rules and regulations; chopping down all business
activities. Therefore, none of the 42 potential investors (given licenses) has broken ground in the economic zone. Additional constraints include delays in construction of the breakwater and capital dredging of berthing area on top of land under possession of the Pakistan Coast Guard and Pakistan Navy. Regarding the Mainline-1 project, the committee is still struggling as to what currency to use to secure Chinese loan and what insurance tariff to agree to.
There remain no qualms about the immense importance the cross-Pakistan project holds for its economy as well as its society. Still, to use this opportunity to its best advantage, Islamabad needs to regain its full-throttle drive on CPEC projects. First and foremost, the government needs to quell all corruption rumours. The official heading the CPEC commission is deemed highly controversial in the light of the infamous Papa John’s scandal. Then again, there remains the issue of the authority’s blanket immunity from watchdog bodies’ investigations. How can the Chinese authorities and provincial governments be expected to give unflinching support to a body that has been tainted in such an unprecedented manner? It is oft-argued that corruption scandals tarnishing CPEC projects are kept under wraps only because of fears over China’s displeasure. Khan’s team should rise to the occasion with transparency and credibility-building exercises.
Making use of synergistic coordination, the government’s goals should revolve around developing its capacity to plan projects that best absorb concessionary loans and grants. Effective dissemination of information that the prosperity would come to entire Pakistan, not just cities in Punjab and Sindh, could well quash hostility in Balochistan. A united Pakistan would mean a secure platform that shapes CPEC projects as a whole.
China has repeatedly asserted that Pakistan stands to attract extensive Chinese investment if it provides a business-friendly environment. Therefore, cutting the bureaucratic tape so that potential investors can register and operate in SEZs sans wasting time should be prioritised by the government.
Extending CPEC to Afghanistan and distributing its low-hanging fruit to all provinces would help seize this never-before-seen opportunity in the best manner possible. The ball is surely in Islamabad’s court. It remains to be seen how many wickets would it take.