Published Date: Dec 8, 2016
The CPEC contradictions
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor will go down as the most talked-about topic of this decade, and beyond. But how much does the private sector or government stakeholders beyond the P-block and other closed quarters of the federal government know about it? The answer is: very little, with contradictions apparent in the federal governments CPEC communications.
A few weeks ago, the IGC held a seminar in Islamabad, and one of its panel discussions obviously focussed on the CPEC. Chairing that panel, Ahsan Iqbal, the Planning Minister, said that there was nothing hidden about the CPEC. "It is like an open book," he said.
Right after Iqbal’s talk, BR Research spoke to one of the staff members at the CPEC Centre of Excellence of the Planning Commission that has been set up at PIDE. Our question: what are the thematic areas of CPEC centre at PIDE? The answer: "I cannot discuss it because it is confidential".
Or take another incident at the CPEC session on the first day of the SDPI moot this week. Dr Safdar Sohail, the Executive Director of the same CPEC centre at PIDE, pointed out how agriculture was one of the "pillars" of the CPEC. Pillar, mind you, which refers to something being very critical.
A few minutes later, an environmentalist asked Safdar’s co-panellist (sitting on the same stage), Miftah Ismail, the boss of BoI, about the environmental assessment of Chinese interest in Pakistan’s agricultural land. And his response: CPEC has nothing to do with agriculture in Pakistan. Need one say more!
Recall that documents governing the rules of business of the Planning Commission clearly demand that the commission shall publicly report the physical progress update of all its projects on a quarterly basis. The same applies to CPEC, though no progress reports on CPEC have been periodically released by the commission.
From Khyber, to Mehran and Quetta, politicians had been wary of the CPEC. But that was the "route" issue, which arguably stands settled, although those who want to politicise it continue to do so. But this column’s interaction with businesses across the country, leads us to believe that nearly all and sundry stand clueless about it.
Speaking to BR Research, Dr Kaiser Bengali, the economic advisor to Balochistan government said that, "CPEC-related information is also not shared at government-to-government level". And this is Balochistan, which is supposed to get a bulk of the CPEC projects, according to Ahsan Iqbal.
There is also a sense of uncertainty about the kind of spillover that may or may not happen on Pakistan’s private sector. Duty exemptions have already been given to China, something which is building up fears that Chinese investors in Pakistan will import most of their materials and supplies from China. Already, the port is being made by Chinese workers, with little spillover.
Realism may demand that China is given relaxations in various forms, taxation, procurement rules, relaxed visas, and etcetera. But if the spillover is to be no more than just a few drops, or if there are fears to that effect, then Pakistan needs to have a clearly-communicated game plan, one that is not only formed in continuous consultation with provincial governments but one that also has the private sector on board.
When Sher Shah Suri was renovating and expanding the ancient Mauryan route, he didn’t feel the need to actively and continuously engage a wide variety of stakeholders, or to give periodic progress reports. Today, we know that road as the Grand Trunk Road. But today is also not sixteenth century. The economy and society of today demand that governments must be transparent about it.
It is understandable that CPEC is not just one road, or corridor; nor will it be built in a day.
Projects like these take long years to take form. So even if there are areas on which the government lacks clarity or answers that only time can provide, even then it ought to engage with private sector, the think tanks, the academia and indeed the society at large. The failure to do so, perhaps, stems from the sixteenth century kingdom mindset.