Sunday, 26 August 2018

Saaf Pani: What PTI should learn from Shahbaz Sharif’s mistakes

As Sardar Usman Buzdar takes oath of the office of CM Punjab, one issue that will dominate his agenda for the next five years is the provision of clean drinking water to the 110 million population of Punjab. He will be undertaking this herculean task in the backdrop of Shahbaz Sharif’s failed Saaf Pani Program (SPP) and there are lessons that need to be learnt from the failure.
Believe it or not, there were compelling reasons to initiate the Saaf Pani Company in 2013-14. Existing departments such as the Public Health Engineering Department (HUD-PHED), Local Government department (LG-CDD) and WASAs are decadent and cannot be expected to bring about a revolution in the water sector. The idea of launching a parallel, new structure to bring in private sector expertise and attract the best human resource (hence, the exorbitant salaries) was sound. However, Shahbaz Sharif’s authoritarianism is to blame for the failure of the program. Although there were world renowned firms (e.g. German giant Fichtner) developing water solutions, Khadim-e-Ala wanted to keep a tight grip on the project. He installed his favorite (and non-technical) officers as the CEOs and political allies as Chairmen of the Board. The countless review meetings for the project were humorous - as the CEOs and high-level bureaucracy would get censured by the Chief Minister as they were unable to meet deadlines due to the fact that the CM himself kept changing the model of water infrastructure to be adopted. It was comical to see the SPP being split into two companies on the CM’s whim and then the CM himself suggesting that perhaps one would suffice. He kept instituting one committee over another, to decide some insignificant detail and then would take the decision himself regardless of the committees’ suggestion. Tax-payer’s money was wasted on international “road-shows” – all of which ended with Shahbaz scrapping one procurement after the other because “reputable” firms failed to bid.
Today, the CEOs are returning their paychecks on the orders of the Supreme Court while Shahbaz attends NAB hearings on alleged corruption. However, the underlying issue is still the same – the ~8,000 water supply schemes and filtration plants in Punjab, close to 90% do not provide water fit for drinking. This number itself is dubious since the Government’s water testing laboratories are unable to test for all impurities and contaminants (including arsenic). Moreover, a fifth of the population is still unserved by a water supply scheme.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel though. The new Chief Minister will have at his disposal the young, vibrant and data-driven Special Monitoring Unit, which has already prepared a roadmap for water sector reform. With help from water experts and untainted bureaucrats, the CM should set provision of clean drinking water as one of his top priorities. It would be wise, however, not to use the title of “Saaf Pani”.