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Pakistan's first metro train line, China's gift or debt trap

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Islamabad | November 30, 2020 1:13:22 AM IST
Across the globe, people avoid public transport systems during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pakistan has started commercial operations of its first metro train service in Lahore amidst a fresh wave of coronavirus outbreak. Commuters are going crazy and flocking in large numbers to get a first-hand experience of the "gift from China", a USD 1.6 billion light-rail transit system.

The Lahore's Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) is designed to carry nearly a quarter of a million people a day in Pakistan's second-largest city. It is one of the largest metro projects under Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and an early project under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Financed by the Pakistani government and a USD 1.6 billion loan from China's Exim Bank, the train is jointly constructed and operated by China Railway and Norinco International, one of China's largest engineering contractors. Guangzhou Metro Group and Daewoo Pakistan are also involved in the project. The OLMT took six years to complete with the total cost of over USD 2.2 billion, considered a symbol of deepening Pakistan-China friendship.

The strategic CPEC is a collection of infrastructure and other projects under construction throughout Pakistan since 2013. Originally valued at USD 46 billion, the projects were worth USD 62 billion as of 2017. But there are growing questions about the huge amount of debt Pakistan has taken for this project in recent years.

Opposition PML-N party celebrated the opening of the project boasting it is a gift to the people of Lahore from the Sharif brothers led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. While the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party led by Prime Minister Imran Khan continued criticising the metro train project, convincing the public that approximately Rs 30,000 crore spent on this project could have been invested for improving the health and education sectors.

Though its leaders explain the government has reluctantly completed the project to fulfill international commitment with China and a gesture that it owned to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects after years of delays and political controversies. Launched in 2015, the project was to be completed before the July 2018 elections but was delayed because of political problems.

Members of the ruling party calling it a white elephant that burdens the public coffers. The metro line is expected to cost the taxpayer 5 billion rupees a year in subsidy. Before becoming Prime Minister, Imran Khan censored the previous Nawaz Sharif government for investing in the Orange Line instead of hospitals or education and criticised its decision not to safeguard the environment and key heritage sites during construction. In 2018, Khan made the murky financial details of CPEC projects including the Orange Line a focus of his anti-corruption drive, launching a commission to investigate how contracts were awarded, the costs involved and the level of transparency.

Despite Khan's opposition, in recent years Pakistan's crumbling infrastructure and poor transport network have seen the country aggressively court more than $62 billion in Chinese loans to finance big-ticket development projects, which observers say will plunge the debt-ridden country deeper into a financial quagmire. Pakistan's external debt now amounts to 45 per cent of its GDP.

Besides debt issue, the Orange Line has been dogged by many other controversies, from accusations that it endangered UNESCO heritage sites to complaints the government demolished low-income housing along the route. The metro project led to protests from people concerned it would damage some of Lahore's most famous landmarks, in particular the Shalimar Gardens, a world heritage site. More than 600 trees had to be felled along the route.

More than 50 metro line workers have died, highlighting the country's labour problems, including its pattern of relying on precarious, subcontracted workers for large infrastructure projects, as well as weak enforcement of relevant laws.

In January 2017, seven labourers died and more than a dozen were injured in a fire at a temporary shelter housing metro line workers. In July 2016, following the death of a worker, some Orange Line labourers deemed the work too hazardous and initiated a strike, claiming the government was prioritising the speed of the project over workers' lives. Labour activists say that the majority of incidents happened because labourers were not directly employed by the government or Chinese contractors, but by a convoluted network of Pakistani subcontractors who brought in workers from south Punjab on low wages with little health and safety protection. (ANI)

 
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