There is no better example to explore the real-world equivalent to the metaphorical vicious circle in which Pakistan is perennially trapped than the Rawalpindi Ring Road (RRR) scandal. The facts of the story are very simple, although, the ringmaster is yet to be identified.
In order to tackle the growing problem of traffic in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, a Ring Road had been planned that would go around the cities and so relieve some pressure from insides of the cities. A political crony sitting at the top with tentacles in real estate, bureaucracy, media, and politics took the cue and alerted the vultures of fortune.
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These vultures had been waiting for quite some time for an opportunity to present itself so that when the opportunity finally arrives, they can amass the proverbial fortune of their lifetimes. As soon as the ringmaster gave the go-ahead signal, the whole process of rent-seeking capitalism kickstarted into action.
The scheme that raked in millions overnight
First, the swindle involved extending the domain of the proposed Ring Road. It was extended for a further 23 kilometers to benefit the vested interests. As soon as the final version of the map of the Rawalpindi Ring Road (RRR) was approved by the highest authority in the country, the celebrated Prime Minister himself, advertisements of new housing societies sprang up all along the Islamabad-Attock GT road with their futuristic graphics and their fancy gated-community-security-assuring names.
The land where no one would dare to venture, a couple of months of ago became the stock of much speculation, helping the comptrollers of the speculative markets. There is only one market that functions well in Pakistan and that is the speculative market of real estate.
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Back to the big story. As soon as the word got out of a new road linking desolate hinterlands of Potohar plateau with Islamabad and Rawalpindi, vulture agents of housing societies descended on the local populace and bought the lands at even less than the Deputy Commissioner rate.
Thereafter, it was all files and money. People started to buy lands for future homes and as a risk-free investment. Some commentators claim that as much as 9 to 10 billion rupees were made by the overnight advertisement and buying and selling of land. Some other journalists claim that as many as 19 housing societies were registered overnight to benefit from the scheme.
At least 10 influential bureaucrats have been implicated in this round of the rentier economy’s political circus. Influential politicians like aviation minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan and Zulfi Bukhari are also said to be involved. Zulfi Bukhari resigned after his name was implicated in the scam. Some say his resignation was solicited by the Prime Minister and not given by him on his own initiative. Also, Tauqir Shah, the principal staff officer to ex-CM Shahbaz Sharif is also said to have benefited from the swindle.
Read more: Rawalpindi Ring Road inquiry: Is the former commissioner being made a scapegoat?
Politics of the privileged
One silver lining out of this whole dark episode of political-bureaucratic game of rent-seeking and corruption is that the plug was pulled by the Prime Minister himself. When he came to know about the illicit activities of his cabinet ministers, and their bureaucratic cronies, right under his nose, it is reported that he himself directed Azam Khan to investigate the matter. Azam Khan was just about to unearth the quintessential specter of the vicious circle from which Pakistan has struggled to break free.
The vicious circle is very simple to comprehend. There is a political family or a political leader who has enough monetary capital to influence people in his/her constituency. He uses his political influence to benefit his/her relatives, friends, and partners-in-crime.
Without any accountability or feasibility of the mega-projects, whatsoever, the ignorant and self-serving help the ignorant and self-serving of their own kind. They entrench their hold on the local, provincial, and federal machinery of the state. This, thus, in the end, becomes the rent-seeking octopus who cannot survive without suckling on the meager resources of the state.
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Aspiring bureaucrats, when realizing that they are helpless institutionally and politically, either get dejected or else, they survive by becoming turncoats in the battle between principles and politics of the privileged.
In any case, the requirements of a post-modern development method are trampled without any regard for sustainability, practicability, conservation, circular economy, green growth, and protection of flora and fauna. Moreover, inefficient allocation of resources and the lack of exchange efficiency results in a more unequal society.
The rise in visible inequality further erodes the social capital and results in lessening of confidence in the political and democratic institutions. Thus, the whole idea of having a democratic polity and by extension having a democratic society is eroded.
Read more: Op-ed: In Pakistani democracy, self-interests trump ideological motivations
Low political will creates societal failure
Lack of democratic political parties is but one reason that Pakistan has consistently failed to produce committed political leadership. When political parties resemble personal property more and democratic collectives less, they are more likely to morph into an octopus, who sits at the top and controls the decision-making of the state in order to gain direct monetary and institutional resources for their own benefit. One can only feel sorry for those who are pushed to the periphery of awarding regime.
The saga of the Ring Road scandal is similar to what usually happens throughout Pakistan, be it the government of Imran Khan or previous pseudo-democratic regimes. Dynastic-Political-Oligarchies at the mercy of stronger institutions would be a better description of Pakistan’s political parties.
The beneficiaries of the Ring Road swindle were close to the center where the seat of the government is situated. Therefore, they got caught. Throughout the country where there is not much oversight by accountability institutions and where political supremos reign like mafia bosses with interests in real estate and housing societies, political power is used to direct the monetary resources into futile and doomed-to-failure projects.
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One such project was that of “Pink Buses” initiated by Mushtaq Ghani, the current speaker of the KPK provincial assembly. A classic example of an electable, Mushtaq Ghani directed the money provided by international financial institutions as aid, into a sop, only meant to garner more political support.
To this day, after nearly three years in power, pink buses have not seen the light of the day. They are rotting in their garages where their tires go flat every other day and scavenging kids throw stones to smash their windows for fun.
When international institutions providing help, it comes with a price tag of a loss of sovereignty. For advertisement purposes, it was told that the Pink Buses would primarily cater to the needs of working women who venture out of their homes. Unfortunately, so much for the talk of inclusivity and women empowerment.
Read more: Pink Bus Service Promises Safety and Employment opportunities to Women
Who will hold #UN accountable for such irrelevant projects that reinforce segregation? Does anyone know what happened to the pink buses for women started earlier in #Peshawar? @unwomen_pak @UNDP_Pakistan @UN
— Bushra Gohar (@BushraGohar) May 11, 2018
Protecting Pakistan from political scams
No wonder Pakistan’s precious economic, social, political, and sovereign resources are squandered by dynastic-political-hegemons who never set foot out of their countries for an adventure.
This capture of the state’s resources and dominance by self-serving shallow political leaders without any hint of any larger-than-life ideological commitment, whatsoever, and bureaucrats who wash their hands in the flowing Ganges, results in a development pattern that is haphazard and unsustainable.
It resembles the fabled statue placed in a square by a sculptor with a note that whoever wants to make a correction is at liberty to do so. After a few days, a mound of mud was what that was left, and there was no statue to speak of.
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The breeding of a political culture that is not dominated by vested interests is essential for Pakistan to make progress. Impersonalization of politics and delinking the political parties from political dynasties is extremely essential if scams like Rawalpindi Ring Road and political sops like the “Pink Buses” are to be avoided in the future.
It is not only a drain on the meager resources of a debt-riven country, but it also takes its toll by furthering inequality and entrenching the already extractive vicious circle. If a state wants to endure as a polity was known for its progressive, inclusive, tolerant, and multi-racial, multi-ethnic entity at peace with itself, it must consciously develop a culture of mass political mobilization and accountability.
It can be achieved by furthering education that is devoid of any pseudo-ideological biases and by creating room for the intellectual development of the coming generations through participation in activities of political and mass importance.
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The author is a political economist with MPhil level education in Economics. He has worked as Chief Editor at The Reformists Educational Services Abbottabad. He also runs Hazara News Network, a social media news outlet. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.