Populism aside, can the PM house really be converted into an educational institute?


"Establishing a university here, and then securing it, would cost the public exchequer much more than building a new campus elsewhere."

ISLAMABAD: Soon after being elected the 22nd prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan announced not to take up residence at the sprawling, hilltop Prime Minister House. On August 20, he stuck to his word and moved instead into an adjoining modest three-bedroom annex of his military secretary, in keeping with his pledge to cut down the wasteful expenditures of the cash-strapped government.

The PM House has 524 servants and a fleet of 80 cars, of which 33 are bulletproof, Khan said in his first televised address to the nation.

"We have helicopters and aeroplanes. We have massive governor houses and every conceivable luxury. On one hand, we don't have money to spend on our people; on the other hand, we have a section of our people living like colonial masters," he said.

Pushing the government's austerity drive, the cars will be auctioned off, except the two Khan needs. And only two servants will be retained for him.

As for the PM House, it will be converted into an educational institute "where common people have access", he promised.

But is that actually doable?

"It's impossible," said an official of the PM House on the condition of anonymity. "Establishing a university here, and then securing it, would cost the public exchequer much more than building a new campus elsewhere." (The premier’s residence is located smack in the middle of a high-security area—in fact, the most secure area in the country).

The official further added that the prime minister should have consulted construction experts and the security apparatus before making such a bold announcement.

Security aside, the mansion is purpose built for residential purposes. It was constructed in the 1980s by then-president General Zia ul Haq.

Spread over 111,778 square feet, the PM House has three wings: the official wing, the family wing, and the visitors' wing. In addition, there is a recently constructed annex, which cost Rs. 220 million.

The family wing, established on 3,000 square feet of land, has a master bedroom, a family room, exercise area and rooms for children. The official wing includes a banquet hall, a conference room and four sitting rooms. Outside, the PM House is enclosed by a lush green lawn, with a tennis court, a zoo, and a polo ground.

If the building were to host a university campus, the entire house would have to be razed to the ground, added another official.

"This is the most expensive piece of land in the country," a retired military official, who has been serving at the PM House for several years now, told Geo.tv.

"Schools, colleges and universities, which receive a large number of students every day, are never established in high-security areas or in between important national buildings."

Just frisking the college students and the staff every day would be a security nightmare.

"We have over a dozen security personnel on the Margalla Hills. More will be needed to check students daily. And who will be responsible in case of an unfortunate incident?" asked a senior security official, also requesting anonymity.

This is not the first time that a prime minister has taken a populist stance about the PM House.

In 1990, when Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister, he made a similar pledge. Nothing became of it.

In 1997, the Pakistan Muslim League-N government vowed to sell the Prime Minister Secretariat. But, after a year and a half, efforts to convince a friendly foreign country to buy it or convert it into a hotel foundered.

Interestingly, outgoing Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi also choose not to shift his belongings to the PM House and instead stayed at his personal residence in Islamabad.

For now, there is much uncertainty about the fate of the Prime Minister House. Officials say a meeting is expected in the coming days when the security officials will give the prime minister their input on what possible use the empty PM House can be put to.