By Alhaj Muhammad Khan
The geographical placement of Chitral has always put its inhabitants at the mercy of nature. While developed nations reached the moon and beyond, the poor Chitralis have been looking to successive governments in Islamabad to make a small hole in the mountain to get connected with other parts of the country. Though the project to dig the Lowari tunnel was conceived decades back and a Swiss team surveyed the site in 1955, the file remained folded in red tape of the country’s financial managers until 1975 when the then PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ordered the start of work on the 8.5 kilometers tunnel. However, after digging only 0.5 km of the mountain, the project was abandoned.
In 2005, the then President Pervez Musharaf launched the abandoned mega project. To be constructed in two phases, the project was to complete in 2008. However, it is still incomplete.
In October 2009, the design of the tunnel was changed by the then government from rail to a road tunnel. The work on this project discontinued in 2011 due to financial constraints. After the May 11, 2013, elections the new provincial government of KPK allocated fund for the project and the federal government also showed some interest to complete the work.
It has been a common practice during spring and summer season that talks on Lowari tunnel fades and soon starts with the winter season when the wind starts blowing in the valley. The month of November and December in public and media circles remains focused in Chitral on how to cross Lowari top to reach. Most of the people of Chitral are concerned on how to go to down country and come back during the time of an emergency.
With rising fares and drastic cuts in the PIA flights, the Chitralis are left with no option but to travel by road. Same circumstances have started this year again on Lowari tunnel opening for traffic in which the poor is sandwiched in the snow of on the 10,200 feet high Lowari top. This year it was also important to mention that the Peshawar High Court (PHC) on Dec 5 directed Principal Secretary, Commissioner Malakand and Chairman National Highway Authority (NHA) to take practical steps to keep the road open for three days a week. On next day of PHC directive, a public notice from district administration was issued informing the public that the tunnel will remain open for two days in two weeks after the closure of the Lowari top road and the passengers can travel through the under-construction tunnel ‘on their own risk’.
In a press conference on Dec, 19 C.O Malakand Division Colonel Pir Zada said the Army engineering battalion was on a standby with heavy machineries on the top to keep the communication system and road open for the traffic. He also said that now road is better after some work have been done for travel from previous condition. The next decision made public on Dec 20 came from the senior civil judge Chitral directing NHA and SAMBU to keep the tunnel open on alternative days. The District Bar Chitral in a press conference also eulogized the decision of the court and the concern of the court to redress public grievances.
On Dec 23, a protest camp was set up in Peshawar by Chitralis demanding the government should Lowari tunnel open for four hours on a daily basis emphasizing provincial government and federal government to pay the dues of Korean Company (SAMBU) also demanded from provincial government without wasting time to take steps on opening of tunnel for traffic.
The ordeal and tribulation the people of Chitral facing in winter season is imponderable for those who are living in other parts of the country. The closure of tunnel during winter season not only makes the mobility to halt but also gives rise to the prices of commodities and particularly edible items. A private TV channel two days earlier also underlined 30 % inflation in Chitral compared to the consumer market in the country. It is also evident from the reports that Chitral has shortage of wheat in godowns located in far-flung areas. Most of the people are also considerate about how to deal with an emergency condition comes about during tunnel closure. It is the very time for government of KPK to make arrangements sooner than later to keep the tunnel open for traffic. This matter if further remains sealed to prioritize will certainly increase the problems of mobility, food shortage, price hike, chances of deaths, severance of diseases, failure to enter in examinations, join families and relatives on the time of need, and crossing the tunnel for earning for family subsistence in the closed months of winter in Chitral.
When the hue and cry of half million population is not listened on the floor of the parliament, the hope from the government for welfare is like ‘living in a fool’s paradise’.
The writer is a teacher and freelance journalist based in Chitral