By Mazhar Iqbal
Billions of dollars allocated for the development projects in earthquake affected areas of Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PaK) have been embezzled and mega construction projects in at least three different cities have been put on halt. On 8 October, it has been seven years since the devastating earthquake, which affected millions of people in this region, yet the victims — mostly school children — are still groping in the darkness.
According to latest statistics available from government departments, almost half of the construction projects announced by Pakistan are either incomplete or non-existent. This is the worst example of a government failure in coping with development issues resulting from a natural emergency.
After the failure of the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) of Pakistan and the State Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (SERRA)- the two highest agencies to undertake development activity in Azad Kashmir, the Chinese firms have refused to continue work on these projects.
The construction of 1,865 buildings of educational institutions including schools and colleges could not be completed due to lack of financial resources and there is a complete ban on initiation of new projects for education sector. The tenders for more than 1000 school buildings have been delayed and officials in the public sector development agencies are in doldrums.
Most surprisingly, during the last week the prime minister of Pakistan Administered Kashmir was briefed on the good pace of progress on all developmental projects with the help of fake statistics and he announced that all city development projects would be completed within next 8 weeks.
The speed of work on development and construction activity in Rawalakot — one of the most affected cities — is unbelievably slow and it seems that it will take another 30 years to complete the work. Two important organisations responsible for any development activity in this city, the local government and the Pearl Development Authority are in loggerheads over a number of matters including land acquisition and legal affairs.
Pakistan Peoples’ Party government in PaK has appointed extra staff in an attempt to adjust its workers in government sector but there has been no activity since the restructuring and re-adjustments of key posts in these organisations.
The construction of the Jalalabad bridge in Muzaffarabad city was due to begin on 20th July this year, but has been put on halt due to financial constraints. The city development authority in Muzaffarabad was responsible to get the land evacuated from the landlords which it could not do within the stipulated time-frame. Thus, the Chinese firm, which was all set to initiate construction phase of the bridge, is highly disappointed and have started packing up.
Critics of the government say that either democratically elected government is completely ignorant of the facts or it has no say on running the affairs of SERRA and ERRA. Local media have reported large-scale embezzlement of funds which were initially kept for development activity and later transferred to other government schemes including Benazir Income Support Programme of Pakistan government. The amount of funds misappropriated in this direction is 65 billion Rupees.
There was much hue and cry over the quality of construction work in all those government buildings that had proved to be much more dangerous than the earthquake itself in 2005. The building material, construction standards and procedures involved in state-run schools; everything came under public scrutiny and it was reiterated with firm resolve that highest international standards would be applied to reconstruct the affected buildings.
International donors had pledged 6.3 billion dollars for re-modelling, re-structuring and re-construction of mega cities of Muzaffarabad, Bagh and Rawalakot. However, the actual amount of international donor money that was received by Pakistan and kept for this purpose was 5.8 billion dollars.
After seven years of the announcement of reconstruction phase, there are very few projects which have been completed and handed over to the concerned departments and organisations for use. According to statistics of ERRA and SERRA, almost half of the construction activity has been left either incomplete or non-existent.
The Chinese firms undertaking development activity in PaK had secured financial backing in shape of interest-free loans from Chinese banks for development of earthquake affected region and also a sizeable amount was placed for the compensation for the devastated property. However, claimants of the earthquake damages are still complaining that their dues have not been cleared.
Interestingly, those projects which were built on BOT-basis by international donors itself have been completed within the specified time and are available for use of the concerned government organisations. But there are serious allegations of mismanagement, embezzlement and corruption in running the affairs in these government buildings.
Muzaffarabad District Complex, Civil Secretariat, Rawalakot Hospital and Women College in Rawalakot are a few examples of those buildings that were constructed and handed over by foreign construction teams. From among 1000 school buildings 310 have so far been constructed by the donors themselves.
It has been confirmed now that money placed for development activity was allocated to other government spending including the administrative costs of the projects which were not part of the development scheme. Instead of fifty five billion rupees, the actual amount transferred for other government spending from ERRA accounts was sixty five billion rupees.
Above seven billion rupees have been expended every year since the establishment of the ERRA as its administrative costs.
This is the worst example of a government failure in coping with after-effects of an emergency. Thousands of children in government schools are unable to continue their education under roofed buildings. The tents provided by international aid agencies during the emergency phase have gone worse as they are said to be rough-and-ready arrangements for these schools but after seven years of wear and tear they cannot provide shelter from chilling cold in winter. The school children were the most effected victims of the devastated earthquake and they are again victim of government apathy.
(The writer is associated with Press for Peace and can be reached at [email protected])