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Slightly over a year ago construction work started in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.  Construction work is nothing new around here – Pakistan’s population is growing rapidly and houses are constantly being enlarged, with office blocks and malls mushrooming in similar profusion.  But this construction work was on a different scale.  Some of the most important roads in Rawalpindi and Islamabad – Murree Road, 9th Avenue, the Kashmir Highway, Jinnah Avenue – were torn up, more or less at once.  That’s perhaps half of the most significant roads in the capital of Pakistan rendered unusable overnight.

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Predictably, chaos ensued.  Real, genuine chaos.  Journeys that would previously have taken twenty minutes took an hour or more.  Dust clouds erupted from the construction sites.  When It rained – and last winter it rained a lot – the dust turned to mud, and cars slipped and slid across the cities.  I remember one on particular evening travelling from southern Rawalpindi to central Islamabad, and spending nearly two hours in a clunky, smelly taxi, stuck in traffic, surrounded by thick clouds of choking dust and the constant blaring of horns.  If Dante added more circles to his vision of hell, that would have to be a prime candidate.

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Now, though, all is forgiven.  The metro bus is here!

If you’re wondering what a metro bus is, here is an explanation: it is a transport network, with a single dedicated roadway and stations along the way.  Only metro buses can use it, meaning that there is never any traffic.  Thus the journey from southern Rawalpindi to the centre of Islamabad is reduced from an hour or more to a mere 30 minutes.

And that’s not all.  That journey of an hour or more would have been spent jammed into an uncomfortable, crammed minibus, with no air conditioning, no comfort, and no space for luggage.  These minibuses are incredibly unsafe, badly driven, and hellishly uncomfortable.  In their place we have brand new Turkish buses, spotlessly clean, with air conditioning and automatic doors.  They leave every minute – miss one, and you only have to wait for sixty seconds for the next.

And even THAT’S not all.  The stations are fully automatic: you simply beep your token or card against the terminal and you can walk straight through.  A ticket for any single trip costs 20 rupees (roughly $0.20).  No queues, no bother, no stress.  Even the stations are wifi-equipped.

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The metro bus is now my preferred form of transportation.  It is completely effortless and utterly wonderful.  Complaints have been raised about its cost – and to be honest it cost an absolute bundle, perhaps $400 million, with the usual accusations of corruption and nepotism (to give an example, the contract for providing the stations with flowers and trees was given to a company run by the brother of a government minister) – but these seem churlish in light of the fact that the capital of Pakistan now possesses a public transport system that, honestly, would not be out of place in any city in the world.

It’s an odd feeling, in a country where so much is neglected, poorly-maintained, shoddy, broken, or generally worn down, to use a publicly-funded amenity which is genuinely world-class.  God bless you, Metro bus, and may you bring joy and ease to many millions of Pakistanis.

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Pakistani newspapers as well as foreign media outlets have been all agog recently with the news of investment promised by the Chinese President on his recent visit to Islamabad.  A total of $46 billion has been pledged by the Chinese as they look to build a trade corridor from western China down the Karakoram Highway, through Pakistan, and to the port of Gwadar on the coast.  To put that figure into context, it is three times larger than the total sum of foreign aid received by Pakistan over the last decade.  It is, to use the appropriate economic term, An Awful Lot Of Money.

The list of proposed projects is immense: expanding the Karakoram Highway, the road that leads through the northern mountains to the Chinese border; building the world’s largest solar power plant; expanding roads all the way through Pakistan; building a railway to China (which, as it happens, would pass through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet); and adding enough megawatts to Pakistan’s power capacity to remove the power cuts that plague Pakistan.  Frankly, if even half of these projects come to fruition Pakistan’s infrastructure will be completely changed.

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Your correspondent sincerely hopes that this will come to pass.  Yet it’s also worth pausing to consider something that has occupied my mind over the last few weeks: why is it that major infrastructure projects in Pakistan only happen with foreign investment?

Think about it.  The Grand Trunk Road, the epic road that crosses the subcontinent linking Kabul with Bangladesh, was built by Sher Shah Suri, an Afghan.

Pakistan’s railway network was built by the British (and hasn’t been significantly upgraded since).

Pakistan’s excellent motorways were built by the Koreans.

The Karakoram Highway was initiated and built by the Chinese.

This new project, of unprecedented scale, falls into this category too.  History tells us that Pakistani infrastructure projects on any significant scale only happen when foreigners stump up the money and come up with the idea.

The reason for this goes right back to one of the main challenges faced by Pakistan: as a country, it is too divided.  Pakistan is diverse in every conceivable way: geographically, culturally, linguistically, religiously, you name it.  An Ismaili from Hunza has little, if anything, in common with a Deobandi from Multan or a Shi’a Hazara from Quetta.  A significant chunk of the Pakistani population tends to be more concerned with their own personal networks than with any broader notions of national identity.  Pakistan is, in some ways, rather artificial: a 70 year old construct slapped down onto a land that dates back thousands and thousands of years.  The religious, social, cultural and historical currents that ebb and flow through this land are far, far older than any idea of Pakistani national identity.

The idea of creating any national-scale infrastructure projects requires people to think far beyond their own personal networks, to envision a nation for nearly two hundred million people.  The mental shift required to make this happen (and to consider other elements of statehood such as paying taxes) has not really taken place in any meaningful way.  Perhaps that’s not surprising: Pakistan is not yet 70 years old, and 70 years, in this part of the world, is really not a long time at all.

It may yet happen, and we hope that it will, to create a nation that exists to benefit all of its citizens.

Until then, come, China!  You are most welcome.