By Khalid Pervaiz Raza (Booni)
Lowari Tunnel is in the last phase of its completion. Hundreds of thousands of travellers cross the tunnel every day. It remains open for the vehicular traffic on daily basis for a specified time period. The ordeals of the stranded commuters during the winter season as a result of heavy snowfall and constricted vehicular access via the tunnel finally ended with a regular flow of traffic on both sides of the tunnel. It’s like a dream come true when a passenger jeep enters one portal of the tunnel and makes an exit from the other in a shortest span of just seven minutes. Once the approach roads leading to the tunnel are refurbished, the duration of travel will further shorten to the relief of the commuters. This tunnel has been a matter of life and death for the people of Chitral.
When the construction of the tunnel was halted by Gen Ziaulhaq on the pretext of paucity of funds in the late seventies the miseries of the people of Chitral multiplied manifold. The harsh winters and thick snow on the pass would make it out of bound for all types of vehicular traffic for almost six months and the people had to cross it on foot putting their lives at a great risk. In a desperate attempt to cross over the pass, many Chitralis lost their lives to avalanches and icy gusts of wind. Many of them were left paralized and crippled for life as a result of frost bite. These tragic incidents evinced a lukewarm response from the successive governments which apart from making some makeshift arrangements never thought seriously about the resolution of the longstanding problem on a permanent basis.
The ascension of Taliban to power in the late 90’s put them in control of the major portion of the Afghan mainland. In consequent of the Taliban control, the tribal skirmishes, banditry and highway robbery had diminished a great deal making it safe for the people of Chitral to use Afghanistan as an alternative route to travel to and from the down country. The government for Pakistan then would sign an agreement with her Afghan counterpart for the safe passage of the Chitral passengers through the Afghan soil till the time snow was cleared on the lowary pass for the flow of traffic. The journey via Afghanistan was always fraught with risks and dangers given the fact the Taliban were fighting a formidable foe the Northern Alliance for the supremacy of power. The hardships of the journey were enough to strain the nerves of the people of Chitral and they started to raise voice against the injustice meted out to them.
In 2003, the then President Gen Pervaiz Musharraf during a visit to Peshawar gave the glad tidings that his government is committed to restart construction work on the Lowari Tunnel. The news evoked a sense of jubilation and merry-making in Chitral because the announcement by the president was bound to open the doors of prosperity and socioeconomic development in Chitral. As soon as the Kohat Tunnel was opened, the then President issued directives to shift the machinery to the site of Lowari and subsequently assigning the task of the construction to a Korean construction company Sambu. The work on the tunnel started with a speedy pace and a huge amount of fund was earmarked in the budget for its construction. Sadly, the work on the site halted in the wake of terrorist uprising in the Swat and the adjoining areas of Malakand and Dir, and the construction work was delayed indefinitely. The tunnel received a huge blow when Gen Musharraf was ousted by the PPP-led government of Asif Ali Zardari.
Post-elections 2008, the Pakistan People’s Party took the reins of government with Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani as the Premier of the country. The pace of construction work on the tunnel slowed down due to lack of funds as the PPP-led government was disinterested and slashed the volume of funds earmarked for this mega project in the federal budget. The situation was worse confounded when the project was wrapped up and the funds were diverted to Multan and Lyari. With this apathy, the hopes of the people of Chitral were once again dashed to the ground and they could not help but remember ZA Bhutto in nostalgia as the pioneer of the Lowari Tunnel. His son-in-law Asif Ali Zardari stabbed in the back of the people of Chitral despite the fact that Chitral was the stronghold of the PPP and often referred to as the second Larkana for the mammoth vote bank of the party. The injustice done impelled the Chitralis and once again they decided to take out peaceful protest against the government. The construction work restarted after a prolonged period of time but with a meagre fund at a snail’s pace. Had the work been carried out at this pace, the tunnel would not have completed to be opened for traffic until now.
The 2013 elections turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the people of Chitral. The PML(N) led by Mian Nawaz Sharif was sworn in as the Prime Minister for the third term. The sole National Assembly seat in Chitral was grabbed by APML spearheaded by Gen Musharraf the arch-rival of NS who was sent packing by the former in 1998 and was sent on exile to the Saudi kingdom for ten years. The Chitralis viewed the new development in the center with suspicion as they did not expect any good from the staunch enemy of the former General. The MNA Chitral was also apprehensive regarding the development projects in Chitral. All the premonitions ended in smoke when NS demonstrated large-heartedness and increased the required funds for the tunnel manifold and also issued directives to complete it before the expiry of his tenure. Thanks to NS, the tunnel is in the last phase of its completion.
It merits a mention here that apart from the above named political figures, the contribution of the civil society, local leadership and notables of Chitral can never be overlooked. It is the voice of these personalities that was heard in the corridors of power and the construction was consequently started. The foremost name that comes to mind is that of Attaliq Zaffar Ali Shah who left no stone unturned in raising the issue on the floor of the Assembly for the first time. May Allah bless his soul for his untiring efforts for the construction of the tunnel. The sitting MNA Iftikharuddin, ex-MPA Molana Abdul Akbar Chitrali, Wing Comndr. Fardad Ali Shah,writers, columnist and civil society contributed a lot to the construction of the road tunnel. The Chitralis pay homage and tribute to all those who made their long-cherished dream come true.
By Khalid Pervaiz Raza (Booni)