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Misplaced Priorities | Syed Saadat

Misplaced Priorities | Syed Saadat

PUNJAB Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was visibly upset on a recent visit to flood-affected areas near Dera Ghazi Khan. He vowed to take severe action against those found guilty of the dereliction of duty that had led to the breach in a dyke on the Indus despite only a low-level flood. This is merely half the story; the complete picture is somewhat different and might require the vigilant chief minister to take action against his own self. Here is the complete account.

During his visit, the CM inquired from the secretary irrigation the reason for the breach but the latter could not provide a satisfactory answer. However, the executive engineer serving in the region did not belong to the cadre of astute civil servants who are well versed in the art of staying in the chief minister’s good books, and divulged the real reason behind the flood — that too in the presence of all and sundry. Apparently, the PC-1 for reinforcing the embankment in question was approved in October but the funds were released as late as June, which stalled work on the project. Furthermore, only Rs10 million of the proposed Rs70m were released.

This response caught the chief minister off-guard but as is usually the case, he saved himself from embarrassment by launching a strongly-worded counter-attack on the poor official by asking questions such as, ‘Who stopped you from calling the CM office or moving the request for funds earlier?’ In fact, the exact words of the chief minister were: “You should be ashamed to claim something like this.”

A basic principle of leading an educated workforce is to adopt an open-door policy where people can present their ideas without the fear of being penalised. Senior government officials often resort to insulting officers as a smokescreen for their personal shortfalls. Doctors and engineers serving in the public sector are often at the receiving end of such tirades. Had such theatrics been effective the situation would not have been the same every year.

Critically important projects fail to receive adequate funds.

The poor executive engineer did not argue any further as he was aware of the consequences of annoying the chief minister. Thankfully, not everyone is handicapped by such fears, which brings us to the case of the Chiniot dam where no work has been done despite the project having been given the go-ahead back in 2009.

Villages in the vicinity have been flooded repeatedly since then causing loss of life and property. The estimated cost of the project is Rs24 billion — peanuts compared to the cost of the Metro Bus projects in Lahore and Rawalpindi. I wonder how the honourable chief minister would explain this delay given that

he has been the province’s chief executive all this time, barring four months of the caretaker set-up during the 2013 general elections.

While talking to the poor residents of the flood-affected area, the chief minister went on to say that he had interrupted his medical treatment in London to be with them.

I wish someone among them had asked: is there not even a single hospital in the province that can cater to the needs of your medical treatment? What good is the claim of being able to relate to the misery of the poor when he does not even trust the health institutions of the province he has been ruling for around a decade now? Is there someone who should be ashamed at such a sorry state of affairs?

While raising his voice or losing his temper may conceal the long list of misplaced priorities, it does not exonerate the chief minister from responsibility.

Criti­cally important projects fail to receive adequate funds due to their inability to grab media attention. After all, it is not likely that the chief minister or prime minister would go swimming in the dam — unlike the possibility of travelling via Metro Bus in the full view of the media and amidst plenty of fanfare. Also factoring into the equation may be the fact that Mr Shahbaz Sharif’s gumboots would lose their utility if there were no floods; the honourable chief minister may want value for the money he spent on them — after all, money from his personal pocket cannot be spent as recklessly as that from the national exchequer.

An adage in the Punjabi language implies that the price one has to pay in the pursuit of a special fondness does not really matter. I wish our leadership would realise that when the price of their misplaced priorities has to be paid by the poor man living on the banks of Indus with his life, then it is time for a lot of soul-searching. I wish some hospital in London would provide that facility as well.

The writer is a former civil servant.


Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2015

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