Peshawar BRT takes a U-turn


As Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf came into power, chants of tabdeeli were shouted from every rooftop and reverberated in every heart. People looked forward to an era of change, where events would break off from the shackles of corruption. Charmed by his charisma, people had started to view Imran as the epitome and the Peshawar BRT as the symbol of change.
The PML-N launched the Metro Bus project in 2015 and was the target of immense criticism by the now-in-power PTI. Condemned for being unnecessarily expensive, vast corruption, time-consuming due to incompetence, a burden on the treasury, the project was described as the personification of how the PMLN operates.
When in 2017, under the Peshawar Development Authority, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) was announced, Imran Khan made several promises to the people of Pakistan. From 2015 to 2018, he repeatedly claimed in his jalsas and interviews that this project will be economical, more efficient, will be completed in a record time of six months under a mere Rs 14 billion without any loans, and will make a profit, hence, not requiring a subsidy.
Sadly, as time progressed, the Peshawar metro bus too made a U-turn. The party failed to deliver on every single one of their promises regarding the BRT.
The construction of the mass transit project was launched in November 2017 to be completed, within six months, by March 2018. Unable to fulfil the ambitious task, the launch date was postponed to the end of 2018. Not able to complete the project yet again, BRT, was then to be inaugurated in March 2019. However, the failure to commence the project ultimately pushed the final date to August 14, 2020; 28 months later than the promised date. Although inaugurated, the project remains incomplete to this very date. When Shaukat Yousafzai, provincial minister KPK, was questioned about the completion of the project in September 2021, he was, yet again, unable to give a deadline.
The BRT project-the flagship project of PTI,-was to be completed under Rs 14 billion and put the initiatives by the opposing political parties to shame. However, the feasibility study of the project begged to differ. According to the report, the project could only be completed at the minimum cost of Rs 40 billion. The opposition now claims that the cost of the project has exceeded Rs 100 billion. According to the Asian Development Bank, when the project was granted the PC-I in 2017, the total cost of the project was valued at $587 million or Rs 61 billion. At that time, the dollar was valued at Rs 104.83. But as the Rupee depreciated to unprecedented levels, the actual cost of the project has exceeded the Rs 100 billion mark.
Instead of putting other mass transit projects of PMLN to shame, it has become the source of shame itself for PTI. The construction of the 27-kilometres route of the Lahore Metro Bus was completed in Rs 30 billion, the 23-kilometres route of the Islamabad-Rawalpindi Metro Bus in Rs 44 billion, and the 18.5-kilometres route of the Multan Metro Bus in Rs 29 billion – adding up to a total of Rs 104 billion. Yet, it still falls Rs 2 billion short of the current total cost of BRT.
The PTI also stated that the project will be completed without the aid of loans. But this also proved untrue, as several loans were taken from the Asian Development Bank. The government requested a $335 million regular loan to help finance the project. It also requested two $75 million from the AFD and EIB to finance civil works and equipment costs jointly. These loans were borrowed in US dollars. As the rupee depreciated, it has only exacerbated the situation.
PTI seniors remained adamant that the mass transit project will not run on a subsidy despite the contradictory claims of experts and journalists. Imran Khan, on several occasions, Pervez Khattak, in 2019, and Taimoor Saleem Khan, in 2020, firmly supported the notion that no subsidy would be required. However, as time unfolded, a subsidy proved vital for the smooth running of the BRT.
In the fiscal year of 2020-21, there was a loss of Rs 1.88 billion. To offset this loss, the Provincial Government subsidised the project by Rs 1.75 billion. In the same vein, the estimated loss of the Fiscal year 2021-22 is a colossal amount of Rs 2.78 billion. To which Kamran Bangash, the Special Advisor to Chief Minister KP on Information and Higher Education, stated that the BRT for the FY 2021-22 will be given a subsidy of Rs 2.8 billion. The government was said to reduce the subsidy to Rs 1 billion after the completion of feeder routes and the relaxation of COVID restrictions.
As it became clear that subsidy will remain an imperative instrument for the smooth running of BRT, the PTI has completely changed its narrative. In September 2021, the official account of PTI KP tweeted how apart from a couple of systems in Singapore and Hong Kong, BRT all over the world runs on subsidy as the target is economic benefits rather than financial benefits, which was the argument presented by the critiques all along.
In conclusion, the Peshawar BRT has managed to break a few records. Although it could not become the cheapest project constructed in the record time of six months, it has turned out to be the costliest and most time-consuming project ever undertaken by a provincial government.