“When we asked the Chinese about it, they laughed at us,” Pakistan’s Railway Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique lamented before the National Assembly on Tuesday (November 29, 2016).
Like an elder cajoling a kid demanding a new toy, the minister was told by the Chinese: “consider 160 kmph train as your bullet train.”
At that speed, it is a big let-down for Pakistan that was dreaming of having the bullet training under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The Sharif Government is already under criticism for showing this lollipop to the people who ask why, after three years of the government’s tenure, the promise was still on paper.
On bullet train, the fact of the matter is that it is highly advanced technology system that needs indigenous capability which Pakistan totally lacks. Countries like Japan, France, Germany, Sweden and now, China have researched and developed their own technologies whereas Pakistan Railways has been entirely dependent on developed countries.
It is not surprising that Pakistan cannot ride the bull in China shop so far as bullet train is concerned. That being the case, Sharif can no longer bull-shit his voters on bullet train.
The Chinese have bluntly said that Pakistan “cannot afford” the bullet train in that it simply does not have large enough middle and the upper-middle class population to ride the bullet train and justify the investment.
“We can’t afford an actual bullet train, there’s no market for it,” the railway minister said.
Watchers of the way CPEC is shaping up say that the Chinese did not say three things. One: Pakistan has neglected its railway network, a robust one that it inherited when the Partitition took place, to an extend that infrastructure has remained among the poorest in South Asia.
Pakistan needs to maintain and improve its existing infrastructure with dualization of the main tracks, signal systems, punctuality, safety, security and services. Very little has been dome by successive governments.
Two: Pakistan’s rich who can afford to ride an expensive bullet train prefer to travel by air or by road on their imported Pajeros.
And three: Plying a bullet train through volatile terrain is unsafe, what with numerous militant groups who resist any attempt at modernization and anyone gaining access to the territory.
This snub apart, the minister told the National Assembly that “things are not rosy as they appear” on the CPEC.
He indicated that the Chinese were over-pricing the goods and infrastructure they were setting up under the CPEC.
“We will not buy a pen worth Rs2 for Rs10, not while I am heading this department,” the minister declared.
Also, the Chinese are upset and disagreed with the Pakistani authorities for getting the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to fund the lucrative and crucial Lahore-Peshawar section of the railway network.
“Our Chinese friends have expressed their displeasure, but we’ve made it clear that we have the discretion. They should limit themselves to the Karachi-Lahore track,” the minister said.
The minister’s bravado may not work when the Chinese take up the matter at the highest level and assert their right to decide how to spend the $46 billion on the CPEC.
The Chinese are known to decide everything from design to funds to execution of a project for which they bring their own material and their own labour.
In effect, this means a totally Chinese venture and there are no jobs, no scope for supplying spares and ancillaries and derive any economic benefit by the host country.
All they want from Pakistan is security for their engineers and workers for which Pakistan has committed to raising a special force.
Even if the Pakistanis realize, they are not saying, and in any case, can do little to make the Chinese change their ways.
Some Pakistani lawmakers have cautioned against inviting Chinese “East India Company” that would exploit Pakistan.
By now, China has already gained its objective of gaining access to the Indian Ocean by sending their goods across the Karakorum to Gwadar port in Balochistan that they built.
With CPEC taking off, the Chinese purpose is already served. When, if at all, will Pakistan’s be served?