Somewhere in this land of ours, there must be a prodigious factory dedicated to manufacturing holy cows. How else do you explain the endless supply of this product throughout our history? The latest model on display is the Diamer-Bhasha Dam – a pricey item worth $14 billion at present but which might have $10 billion more added to its cost by the time it is put to use. For a water-stressed country with a burgeoning population, in conflict with an upper riparian enemy (India) capable of using the water card to send us to ruin, all water storage projects must be high on the list of priorities. But then so should population control be, something all demographers agree will be the single most important factor gobbling up the vital resources of our country and banishing us permanently to the margins of development. By 2030, we will be around 225 million and, no matter what we do with our finite resources (water being one of them), there is no way to defuse this bomb other than to reduce it and harness its lethal potential. But that’s not happening. The impossible demands an unsustainable population will make on Pakistan two decades from now is not even an issue here. This is not even lopsidedness; this is idiocy. This is just one example to suggest that our national priorities need to be comprehensive and rigorously debated. They cannot be fashioned out of blind faith and put on a pedestal for unthinking worship. Regrettably, that’s exactly what we have done with the dam. We have damned the debate around it, gilded its cause in gold and elevated it to the level of an idol so revered that it can only be bowed to, and not questioned or thrown into the fire of reality to see if it is really worth the praise. Overnight everyone and their aunt have become hydrologists and structural engineers and there is a zombie march towards the dam. A large body of experts has written and researched consistently about the other side of the dam story, including the actual availability of water in the Indus Basin, the cost of the venture, the tricky geology of the area and a dozen other fairly strong arguments pleading for a reasonable assessment of the venture before jumping into it headlong. But no ear is bent to them because they are now dealing not with a national ambition but a holy cow, whose glorification has become the new standard for separating the believers from the pagans, the patriots from the enemies of the country. Demand debate on the dam and you are damned. Sing its praise and you will get a badge of honour. Donate to it and your soul and skin are both saved. Ask a general question about big dams’ feasibility and you are in trouble. You can be a conservationist by habit and training but without flying the dam flag next to the national flag you are nothing but, to quote a Leninism, “a running dog of the imperialists”. This fazed craze is usually observed in tin-pot dictatorships and formal autocracies. It was next to impossible, for instance, to take issue with late Muammar Qaddafi’s little Green Book, a cocktail of strange political ideas. In fact, it was mandatory for all those in Libya to read it and preferably keep it in their pocket as a pass for personal protection and certification of being a true nationalist. In modern times, Kim Jong-un of North Korea does not like his national projects being questioned. Nor does he tolerate public display of disinterest in his ideas and can clap as he orders a brutal purge of the doubters. Donald Trump is infamous for decrying critics of his zany schemes as those who don’t want America to become great again. He even questions those who question the slogan ‘making America great again’ (they question it on the ground that, since America is already great, the Trump slogan is a bit redundant). But dams are not bad schemes. They are not meaningless green books or fake gossip that North Koreans will be able to fly to the moon in the next ten years. As water storage instruments that can produce electricity and feed an agrarian economy, dams are absolutely vital for any sane scheme that focuses on optimal use of water as a finite natural resource. So there is nothing wrong with the idea of building dams. But big dams have pros and they have cons – and it is only through meaningful hard-nosed debate that we can assess their impact and be honest about their feasibility. Blocking open, in-depth and free discourse on the subject is the worst thing that can be done to a country that has seen not one but dozens of projects forced down its throat only to be forgotten years later after discovering that they were either meaningless or – while great when launched – had no long-term sustainability. Remember how not long ago we were told about the coal project in Thar that was supposed to make us the superpower of Asia by making us self-reliant and self-sufficient in energy? Remember how one dimension of the idea of energy self-sufficiency was the Thar Coal Gasification Project led by our formidable Dr Samar Mubarakmand? Recall the mood of national jubilation when we were told that the project had been a success because it had lit a flame that would never be snuffed out? The latest on that grand project is that its 400 hundred employees have not been paid for months and it is facing closure. It has no funding and even Dr Samar Mubarakmand isn’t powerful enough to get it going. The same thing happened with Chagai’s gold and copper reserves, the Reko Diq Mine Project. We were told fantastic tales about how it would make us the powerhouse of the world and its $500 billion potential would bring our economic woes to an end. And where is that scheme now? Buried in litigation and dusty files. More recently, we have been hearing endless chatter of ‘stolen wealth sitting abroad’, waiting for the right man to bring it back and make us economically solvent in an instant. Those in attendance of Murad Saeed were told by him that almost $200 billion will return home the moment Imran Khan comes to power. Out of this, $100 billion will be spent on repaying our debt and the other half will be spent on people’s welfare. Everybody applauded that idea. However, the situation now is that we are contemplating which of the two options is less embarrassing: asking for a bail-out from the IMF or requesting the Saudis and the Chinese to lend us more money. But the economy isn’t the only sector of national life where fickle imagination is fired up thoughtlessly and returns to its senses only after a crash-landing on the ground a few years later. There was a time when fighting the Soviets alongside the Taliban was a national cause that you could not debate or disagree with it without imperilling your life and limb. And then there was a time when, under General Raheel Sharif, a word against Operation Zarb-e-Azb (remember the name?) was considered treason. There was a time when eulogising dictatorships was endorsed as the most necessary act of patriotism. There have been occasions when fighting India over Kashmir was a cause worthy to die for but then came the time when General Musharraf agreed to a practical division of Kashmir with India and we were told it would save our future. From defence to the economy and from the social sector to national politics, the factory churning out holy cows and mandating their worship has been working overtime since this country’s inception. In each case, the nation has been told that this is in the national interest, and for the long-term. In each case, the nation has discovered, however, that national interest was really personal interest and the ‘long term’ was only as long as the term of office lasted.