Lowari tunnel: opportunities and challenges

The construction of Lowari tunnel has been the most cherished dream of the Chitral district?s half a million people, who used to remain disconnected from the rest of the country for five months during the extended winter season every year.

With the work inside it on the verge of completion, the tunnel will be opened to traffic round the block in seven to nine months. Currently, motorists use it for 10 to 12 hours daily.

The Lowari tunnel promises road connectivity between this northernmost district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other parts of the country round the clock and all through the year but it will have deep repercussions on the social, economic and cultural sectors of the area directly and indirectly affecting the people.

Many strong feel that besides creating hordes of opportunities for the region?s development, the project can create a myriad of challenges as well.

The opportunities include exploitation of mines and minerals, gems and precious stones, marble and granite, promotion of Chitral as a commercial hub, flourishing of tourism industry and generation of hundreds of thousands of jobs for locals. It will also bring Chitral into the national mainstream.

Chitral is spread over 15,000 square kilometers with more than 60 per cent of it being mountainous and around 25 per cent highland pastures divided into 36 valleys. They?re repository of mines and minerals, which haven?t been explored yet due to costly transportation expenses. Same is the case with vast marble and granite deposits. The quarrying of gems and precious stones has been done yet.

Many feel the tunnel while promising Chitral?s development threatens the region?s culture and social norms by inviting people from other parts of the country for settlement

Former MNA from Chitral Shahzada Iftikharuddin insists that only the marble and granite industry can generate around 4,000 jobs for locals.

Some minerals were explored but their mining didn?t begin as their transportation to the market was very high due to the Lowari Top, which heavy vehicles were unable to cross.

After the completion of most tunnel work, the 32-wheeler heavy transport vehicles are now seen in the valley of Chitral. Tourism industry will also benefit from the tunnel as it has been seen in the last two years when it was regularly opened to the public transport vehicles. The data compiled by the Chitral police shows during the last two years, the number of people visiting Kalash valleys of Bumburate and Rumbur on Eidul Fitr and Eidul Azha every year crossed the 18,000 mark after the opening of Lowari tunnel. Earlier, the number used to remain 2,000-3,000. New tourist resorts are also being explored and promoted like Golen Gol, Sheshi Koh, Khot, Baroghil and others, while the influx of tourists is expected post Lowari tunnel construction and thus, accelerating economic activity in the region and offering jobs to locals in different capacities.

Atalique Haider Ali Shah, the former chairman of Chitral Association for Mountain Areas Tourism, a civil society organisation for the promotion of tourism, said the Lowari Pass was a hurdle to the promotion of tourism in the area.

He said during the closure of Lowari Pass, not a single tourist reached Chitral as the only way of coming to the district was PIA flights, whose arrival was subject to good weather. He added that no tourist wanted to take the risk of being stranded in Chitral.

?After the tunnel?s opening to traffic all through the year, the tourists will be able to come here in large numbers and thus promoting winter tourism. The tourists will enjoy snowfall for which they used to go to other resorts like Murree, Kaghan and Swat,? he said.

Chitral Chamber of Commerce president Sartaj Ahmad Khan is of the view that the district will become a hub of economic activities due to its proximity to Central Asian States and China due to the availability of all-weather route after the Lowari tunnel?s construction and the proposed alternate route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through it.

He said Chitral had high prospects for the promotion of trade activities after the inauguration of work on tunnel by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Mr Sartaj said investors were paying attention earnestly towards Chitral, which was hitherto an area of no substance for them and that he was in knowledge of multinational entrepreneurial organisations making their debut here after the Lowari tunnel completion and that signified a major breakthrough in the field of trade.

He said the new market of Chitral would bring far better dividends for the local farmers of vegetable and fruits as well the cottage industry like Chitrali Patti than before.

Although the Lowari tunnel promises prosperity and progress in all sectors in Chitral, it is taken as a threat to the socio-cultural and economic life as well the peace and tranquility of Chitral.

Dr Inayatullah Faizi, former project manager of an IUCN project in Chitral, fears that the cultural norms and social values will be subject to change and thus, hastening the process of social change due to the arrival of people from other parts of the country for permanent settlement. He said the process had begun in 2005 when work on the Lowari tunnel project got under way.

The expert said as Chitral was going to host the people from every nook and corner of the country apart from the residents of Afghanistan, China and some Central Asia States in near future, the local communities were highly vulnerable to social and cultural changes.

The cost of land in Chitral has gone up by more than 10 times during the last one and a half decade due to the tunnel?s construction. The local people fear that many tempted by the high cost of land will sell property to non-local magnates and will become ?indigent after dissipating? that money.

District nazim Maghfirat Shah insisted that no one could be stopped from purchasing property in any part of the country including Chitral as declared in the Constitution.

He however said a social restriction could be imposed on the sale of land to outsiders as was prevalent in Hunza.

The nazim said the district government was trying to develop a liaison with Chitral Chamber of Commerce and civil society organisations to prepare the local residents for the imminent societal changes post the Lowari tunnel?s construction.

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2018

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