One can feel the agony and distress of a person whose mother died in Chitral and he could not fly from Peshawar for 13 days due to inclement weather in his hometown. This had happened with one Syed Riaz Shah of Arkari valley, who was in Peshawar in 1990s when he received the sad news.
He rushed to the PIA reservation office in Peshawar and confirmed his seat in the flight for the next day, but he could reach Chitral after 13 days as the flights were repeatedly cancelled due to bad weather. Mr Shah still remembers how he passed that 13 days when his family direly needed him back home.
The post-Lowari tunnel days of Chitral are also replete with such stories of human tragedy. The tunnel was nothing less than a dream for the residents of Chitral who would lose their contact with the outer world during winter season.
Chitral district, in the extreme north of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is area-wise the largest district of the province with a population of about half a million. Located in the lap of lofty Hindukush mountains, the district is spread over 14,850 square kilometres and its inhabitants remained virtually ‘imprisoned’ within the district for five to six months during winter season when the Lowari Pass (10,230 feet above sea level) received heavy snow, severing communications between Chitral and rest of the country.
After the closure of Lowari Pass for the season, the only source of physical contact between Chitral and rest of the country was the national airline which operated three Fokker flights between Peshawar and Chitral from 1964 to 2002. Presently, there is only one weekly flight. The flights are subject to weather and sometimes these remained cancelled for 15 days consecutively. The commodities of daily consumption were stockpiled before the closure of Lowari Pass, but the shortage of items was usual, leading to hoarding and black marketing.
The Pass is nicknamed as ‘blood thirsty pass’ as there is hardly any village in the district which has not lost its men to the avalanches and blizzards of the Pass.
The construction of a tunnel was the only way to establish connection between Chitral and rest of the country throughout the year whose initial survey was made by a Swiss team in 1955, but the project was shelved till 1975 due to financial constraints. It was then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who started work on the project in 1975, but to be abandoned two years later by the military ruler when digging of only 0.5 kilometre of 8.76 kilometres was completed. The people of Chitral had to wait for over a quarter century when former president General Pervez Musharraf restarted work on it and this time the work was carried out on both sides simultaneously. It was a historic moment for the people of Chitral when on January 10, 2009 the National Highway Authority announced opening of the tunnel for public for limited duration. Festivities were held across the valley for many weeks to celebrate the occasion.
Many people had died with the longing to see the day when the tunnel would become a reality. The provincial minister in then PPP government (1974 to 1977), Qadir Nawaz Khan of Drosh, had bequeathed one of his sons-in-law to call aloud in his grave when the tunnel becomes a reality. Ghulam Mohammad, a senior government officer, recalls that he did it accordingly for which he specially travelled to Drosh from Upper Dir where he was posted as DCO.
The long struggle of the leaders and people had made it possible. The struggle dates back to the British era when the ruler of Katoor dynasty, Sir Nasirul Mulk (1936 to 1943) had approached the viceroy of India with the request to construct the tunnel. Nasir Ali Shah alias Bajgi Asaqal, one of the personal staff of the ruler and accompanying him to Shimla for attending the darbar of viceroy, testifies this fact.
While recalling an incident of 1941, he told this scribe that while travelling to Simla, Nasirul Mulk had a stopover at Malakand and evinced great interest in the tunneling work of Malakand hydropower project which was in progress. He said that the ruler of Chitral had discussion with one of the British officers present on the occasion during which he enquired about the possibility of a tunnel through the Lowari Pass. Encouraged by the British engineer, he said, the ruler requested the viceroy about the project and a survey team was sent to Lowari accordingly which declared it to be feasible. No further work, he said, on the project could be carried out due to the demise of the ruler in 1943 and the fact that the British rulers had started packing since then. He claimed that the tunnel has the same specifications as suggested by the British engineers.
It was solely due to this reason that the people of Chitral invited former president Pervez Musharraf to contest the election of National Assembly from Chitral and voted for his nominee after his own nomination papers were rejected. The completion of the project will provide an all-weather route to Chitral as its people would always call it a matter of ‘life and death’ to have a round the year access to rest of the country.–Dawn