LAHORE: Pakistanis are hoping their new prime minister will roll out high-profile projects that became his party’s trademark in its political heartland of Punjab, but the nation’s dire finances threaten the optimism.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won huge popularity and a reputation for getting things done with a series of big-ticket schemes over the past five years in Punjab province.
A metro bus system in the provincial capital Lahore — the first such scheme in the country’s 65-year history — free laptops and solar energy panels for students and a network of high-quality schools in poor rural areas made Punjab the envy of Pakistan.
In the campaign for the May 11 general election, PML-N leader and now Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, promised similar schemes for the whole country.
In Lahore, the Metro Bus which opened in February has revolutionised travel around the city, a traffic-clogged mishmash of colonial-era buildings, cheap housing and newer, more upmarket suburbs.
The 27-station network of buses running on dedicated lanes and elevated roadways, run by a Turkish company and carrying 120,000 passengers a day, was built at a cost of Rs30 billion ($300 million).
Terminals offer a computerised fare system and commuters can use smart cards to avoid the hassle of queueing — a welcome use of technology in a bureaucratic land where paperwork, preferably in triplicate, is still king.
Hira Farhat, a pharmacy student at the University of Punjab, was delighted with the service.
“It’s comfortable and quicker than other means of transport. It has cooling system and takes me to my university in 15 minutes. The government must start it in other cities also,” she said.
The PML-N has promised to take the metro bus to Karachi and Islamabad.
“All development projects will be completed before the completion of our five-years term so that people can get the fruits,” said Sharif.
But populist projects do not come cheap and Pakistan is in a dire financial predicament, with a fiscal deficit in 2012 of 8.5 per cent of GDP and growth in 2013 forecast at 3.5 per cent — half what economists say is needed to absorb the growing young population into the workforce.
“These are good projects but at the same time the government should also be in the business of mobilising resources,” said Ashfaq Hassan Khan, principal of the National University of Science and Technology Business School.