Of Mars and metro buses

Pakistanis have the equivalent of a drug addict’s deviated septum when it comes to overdosing on simplicity. Recently, a graphic image has been designed and can be seen on social media that compares India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) to the metro bus project in Pakistan. It goes something like this: India spent $ 75 million on MOM and the Pakistan government, led by the PML-N, spent $ 725 million on the metro bus project. The picture also shows an arrow to define the distance covered between both the Mars mission and the metro bus. The absurdity is supposed to be a no brainer.
If we were to put some brain to use, however, we would realise that the graphic and its various expressions are a gross error in identifying the problem with the metro bus budget. The graphic also zeroes in on the grandeur of MOM being that it covered a great distance. This is also not correct: the purpose of the two projects was not merely to win a contest in distance.
One of the greatest wins of the Indians in this successful MOM launch is a spectacular PR campaign. Trumping China, India is now the first Asian country to send MOM to space in what is possibly the lowest price point. This does not have just political mileage, it has also inspired the imagination of India’s students, its people and its scientists. It has signalled to the rest of the world that India needs to shed its image as a country of serial genocides and homeless and unhygienic cities and towns. It wanted to reinforce the image of a country where even the skies are no limit. This was also staged at a time when US-India relations are entering a new era. It certainly does not hurt to have MOM in the pocket when negotiating for more leverage as an emerging power.
Moreover, it signals that the previously launched India Shining campaign and the new Made in India campaign has real horse power behind it and that, indeed, its scientists can do it on their own. Half of the world’s battles can be won by national pride. But not all. If one probes, MOM has limited sensors and the data it will collect will be of equally limited scientific use.
On the other hand, Pakistan does need to not just shed the image of being a poor country or a poorly managed country, but instead do something to rectify the real, on ground problems for common people. The metro bus project, with all of its controversies about whose steel is being used, the disruption to the traffic pathways or the overheating of the buses, still boasts the fact that there are thousands who will use it and thousands more have been employed by it and because of it.
The bus project in Lahore carries almost 180,000 people daily and about 10,000 per hour during peak hours. Bus projects for developing countries have compounded positive effects of connectivity between far edges of the city to the city centre and of subsidised travel fare of Rs 20 a ride. The environmental effects can also not be undermined when fewer vehicles, especially alternate rickshaws and motorbikes, are replaced by the bus.
The project that is currently in progress from Rawalpindi to Islamabad will undoubtedly build a more planned city landscape with positive implications for the middle class and lower middle class. This middle class, if given the choice of chewing on a pill of national pride or to have the convenience of connecting to better opportunities, may actually choose the latter. This choice is hard to understand when clicking ‘like’ or retweeting on one’s social media portals, but it is more likely to be true. The point here is that simplifications do not help anyone. This particular one downplays the progress of both the metro bus project and MOM. The first it does by claiming that the bus project is over budgeted, most likely pocketed by the corrupt, and the second it does by reducing it to a need to just cover distance.
Nations need to stage interventions on multiple fronts of development for progress to be made. This is why there is so much concern over cyber security, disease control or disaster relief, all at once. Pakistan needs to invest in a viable space programme because it is essential to mark our path towards the future. It also needs to invest in local infrastructure projects. Likewise, lndia cannot just get away with a feather in its PR cap. This region houses the world’s largest number of malnourished, poor and diseased people, particularly women, children and the old. Poor-friendly projects also need attention and it would be wonderful if the rat race were about that than about weapons, contracts and nuclear stockpiles.
A more apt infographic would be the curve of investment India made in education and then to compare it to Pakistan’s. It would be more dramatic to see how early this investment in India started, how 20 years later the education industry paid dividends, and how anaemic Pakistan’s investment was in education, how late it started, and how few the dividends. That is the real distance we need to cover. The distance between us and Mars does not begin to cut it.

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