Bold PR plans
THERE is no escaping the plight of Pakistan Railways and certainly no shortage of hard-to-believe projections about its turnaround. Only last week the project director of the 1,900-km Mainline-I plan briefed a Senate committee on the PR revolution in the making. He spoke of doubling the number of passenger trains from the current 40 and boosting the railways’ share in freight traffic from Karachi to 20pc from the abysmal less than 4pc at the moment. Those tempted to hit the road between Peshawar and Karachi thanks to the recent opening of highways that are supposed to drastically reduce the distance will, apparently, have tougher competition from the old, ‘reliable’ train.
Moreover, after the opening of these new road links, a premier bus service promises to take passengers from Lahore to Karachi in 14 hours, with stopovers included. The railways, with all its ‘romance’ and ‘comfort’, claims it will complete the same journey in 10 hours once the ML-I project is finished. It promises greater passenger protection, though the 70-odd train accidents since August 2018 when the PTI came to power may prove to be something of a deterrent for aspiring rail travellers. There is also a promise to open up the railways and let it embrace new ideas, in contrast to the very strict government-controlled existence imposed on it over the years. During the briefing, the upper house committee was told that after the completion of the ML-I under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, trains will be outsourced to private operators. In response to the old reservations against entrusting maintenance of infrastructure to private hands, the government will keep control of the railway tracks.
All this is dependent on the successful completion of the ML-I, which experts say will take nine years. It is a huge project estimated to cost $9.2bn and is being touted as the railways’ saviour against a background of non-provision of sufficient and timely funds. The absence of resources and political decision-making has been the bane of PR. The calls about freeing the institution held captive by the ruling parties will have to be ultimately heard for a true revival. The debate must take place now with a frankness that the dire situation of the country’s train system demands. The introduction of private operators once the system has been spruced up may be a good beginning but some experts advise releasing the PR from the often debilitating control of the Ministry of Railways. The idea of having an independent regulator help PR run its operations may at first sound too radical to some of those who are conservative and shy of fast remedies. Let it at least be the starting point of a ‘save the railways’ discussion that should not suffer on account of the absence of frankness and bold turnaround steps. Desperate times do not breed easy answers.
EARLIER this year, Prime Minister Imran Khan highlighted Pakistan’s potential for religious tourism when a new policy of relaxing visa applications was announced. He spoke about the sleeping Buddha, the Katas Raj temples, Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur as a few of the many religious sites that would be of interest to those belonging to the Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh religions. This speech was followed by the grand opening of the Kartarpur corridor on Nov 9, which facilitated a long-awaited pilgrimage for some 12,000 Sikh men, women and children from around the world. That same month, at a meeting with Buddhist monks from South Korea, the prime minister reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to promoting interfaith harmony and the pride it took in its Buddhist heritage. Most recently, the KP government has announced the setting up of the Gandhara Research Centre to promote religious tourism in the province. According to officials, the province boasts some 2,000 sites of historical and religious significance, and the government has pledged to preserve all sites with the help of the South Korean government. Other efforts made by the government include the announcement of the launch of a new bus service in Lahore, Multan and other cities of Punjab to facilitate religious tourism to various vibrant shrines across the province which are so integral to the country’s social fabric, and something that Mr Khan has also spoken about.
Undoubtedly, all such efforts to encourage interfaith harmony and religious pluralism are welcome. At the crossroads of many great civilisations, Pakistan is indeed blessed with a unique history and religious, ethnic and natural diversity that would appeal to many people around the world. Unfortunately, this country has also suffered from religious extremism and militancy over the past few decades, which has caused immeasurable damage to its international image. Who can forget the Nanga Parbat massacre, when 10 tourists and a local guide were brutally killed by terrorists in 2013? Such tragedies and the terror they strike in the hearts of people, along with the inability to market ourselves appropriately, are some of the reasons why few tourists have opted to travel to Pakistan. In comparison, other South Asian countries have performed much better in this regard, despite having their own share of political and social problems. Besides promoting tolerance, religious tourism can play an important role in reviving the country’s economy.
PRIME Minister Imran Khan on Friday acknowledged the importance of small and medium enterprises in the country’s economic progress and their role in employment generation. He promised to enhance their access to banking credit and to reshape policies to create an environment to facilitate operations and doing business. Distributing cheques to the recipients of subsidised business loans under his government’s Kamyab Jawan Programme, he reiterated his commitment to promote SMEs. A few days ago, the economic affairs minister spoke of the government’s efforts to push the development of SMEs, saying it was formulating a new policy and planned to increase the number of SME borrowers from 170,000 to 700,000 by 2023.
The SME sector is considered to be the backbone of any economy. No country has achieved sustainable economic growth and created jobs without promoting SMEs. It is generally estimated that SMEs create nine out of every 10 jobs. They are an integral part of the supply chains in the economic sector. In Pakistan, they are responsible for 60pc of the total jobs, and contribute 30pc to GDP and around 25pc to export revenues. Yet the sector remains one of the most neglected areas, especially when it comes to access to formal finance. SMEs are facing a massive financial gap. Over the last one decade, the share of SMEs in the total private sector credit declined to 7.5pc — as compared to 20pc in Bangladesh and 29pc in Turkey — from a peak of 17pc in 2006. Governments have taken policy initiatives over the last two decades for resolving multiple issues facing the SME sector to create a favourable regulatory framework and increase their access to formal finance. But none has yielded the desired results because of the lack of a focused approach and political support. State Bank efforts to push the commercial banks to enhance their SME loan portfolios too have fallen through. No future policy or effort is likely to succeed unless these are backed at the highest level, just as Mr Khan is supporting his Digital Pakistan initiative.