Booni-Awi road repaired by youth volunteers

Saga of roads in Chitral

Shah Karez

Naturally, the need to survive necessitated movement when the first human stepped on the soil of Chitral, which is geographically one of the most inhospitable areas on earth. It is unimaginable for the young generation to visualize the kind of hardships the old generations of Chitral must have gone through for their movement from one place to the other.

The rugged terrain has always posed challenge to the commuters. Imagine the life conditions when there were no footpaths. The original settlers must have struggled to create the paths, trails and pony tracks. Walking long distances on foot was the norm of their life. Only the resourceful could afford pony ride to travel distances.Prior to construction of jeep road people used to travel on foot to cross the formidable but treacherous Lowari Pass standing above 10,000 feet located between Dir and Chitral. These conditions claimed innumerable human lives in Lowari and elsewhere in Chitral.

Be it the three men party of Capt. Robert Knolly in December 19, 1905, the then Assistant Political Agent of Chitral, experiencing narrow escape from an avalanche, or only a day before this, 22 men including 11 ponies or 13 months earlier 35 men with 15 ponies buried under tons of avalanche debris, the story of miseries has been unending. It is aptly said, that Chitral is by far not a district easily travelled.

This could be the story of old Chitral but what about the condition of traveling in Chitral in the 21st century?

Not much different

Thanks to the turn of the century, the decades awaited Tunnel through Lowari was initially passed through in 2009. This was historic and a festive movement and the event was celebrated by holding a well participated seminar in Islamabad followed by Chitrali cultural show.Who knew then, that the miseries of travellers will continue unabated? The light expected at the end of the Tunnel is still dark after over a decade of the much cherished gateway to the Central Asia was announced to be through.

The northern approach road of Lowari Tunnel still calls for immediate attention. This story aside, there are still places where people walk distances on foot to reach their destinations during the long winters or snow melting time in summer. One such area is Broghil where people walk or ride ponies or Yaks to reach their homes. In such conditions one can easily imagine what kind of miseries they or their fellow Chitralis living in distant valleys endure when they fall sick.

There are untold stories of mothers dying while struggling to reach any nearest health facility for deliveries. From such difficult places many a student have missed their exams and those aspiring for jobs missed much sought after interviews.

Bridal procession in Broghil

If it were not for the NGOs the entire areas of peripheral valleys still would be without jeep tracks. The NGOs in early 1980s and later provided technical and financial support to the community organizations to construct jeep tracks, to link various villages with the main valleys such as Gohkir, Karimabad, Arkari, Morder, and several other valleys. The NGOs as a rule do not provide support for maintenance of the roads. For their survival the people of the villages are forced to maintain these dirt and bumpy roads on their own.

Self-help efforts

In 2015 the people of Garam Chashma valley rehabilitated the flood inundated roads from Pachili to Shoghore and Murdaan and the people of Muzhgol cleared debris on Mulkhow road. Earlier the villagers from Zait, Kuragh and Charun made their way from across the mountain when the main road was cut off near Kuragh. Chitral-Booni road cut off by floods in front of Shogram village was rehabilitated by the people entirely on self-help basis. The people of Mastuj and other villages voluntarily cleared the debris from the road between Qudratabad and Mastuj. This is a good example of self-help but for how long?

The people of Mastuj were genuinely expecting generous reciprocity and kindness from the government. Having no response they got disgruntled and finally gave up with a sense of deprivation.

Continuing such an indifferent gesture on the part of the government is detrimental to the cause of self-help. The spirit of social capital exists among the communities in Chitral only. It is highly advisable that the government capitalises on this much needed resource. If this resource is lost there will be chaos all around.

The government must develop trust on the capacity and honesty of the communities in Chitral. They perform miracles when trusted and acknowledged. It is advisable to utilize the Annual Maintenance and Repair (AM&R) funds through the organized communities instead of the traditional system, transparency of which is increasingly being questioned.

However, it must be borne in mind that the communities can maintain the smaller link roads. For the large roads and highways the concerned department must take responsibility. Roads of Chitral could be categorized accordingly and budget allocations for maintenance made as per the dimension of each road including the valley roads. The funds of AM&R of small category roads should be entrusted to the concerned communities. In the current scenario all the roads need urgent improvement and repairs?

Chitral-Buni road is now in shambles for want of proper maintenance. Several valley roads poorly designed and constructed have become known as killer roads.

Buni-Torkhow road has become dangerous at Istaru as the bridge has collapsed and the temporary bypass at the bridge site has become dangerous to human lives.

The main Chitral-Shandur road which is the life blood of Upper Chitral collapsed at Reshun. If this road is not safeguarded against the river currents, Upper Chitral will be cut off for all kinds of communication. It will be particularly difficult to transport essential supplies from down districts which will create catastrophic life conditions. Gruesome accidents occur on the main Chitral-Booni road due to the poor condition and absence necessary safeguards at dangerous turns. A recent accident at Reshun claimed three lives.What will be the life conditions in Yarkhun, Broghil, Khot, Rech, Terich and other parts of Mulkow and Torkhowvalleys when the roads are disconnected is a story that can be narrated by the sufferers only?

Roads leading to Kalash valleys have become highly dangerous. In October 2020 an accident on Bumburate road claimed two lives followed by struggling sufferers in other valleys to reach their destinations.

Poor construction of Chitral town bypass road speaks for itself. The road from Balach to the University of Chitral that also includes other important institutions is in bad shape. The students are clamouring for their basic rights-a road to their University.

The nuisance created for the commuters for unnecessary long time during construction of the 2 km road is a history ridiculing the capacity of the department as well as the contractor.

Travel on valley roads inKarimabad, Parsan and Arkariand other valleys in Upper Chitral such as Yarkhun, Terich, Ovir, Gohkir, Kosht, Morder, etc. is a task claiming human lives at times. Vehicle with men, women and children was drowned in Yarkhun River near Unawich last month. In these areas as elsewhere distance is still calculated by hours taken and not by kilometres run due to the highly poor condition of roads.

If the government wants to improve the life conditions of the people of Chitral, they must urgently undertake the construction/rehabilitation and improvement of the dilapidated road network in Lower and Upper Chitral that includes 30 odd valleys on top priority basis. It is a genuine demand of almost all sections of the people of both the districts in the 21st century. The prevailing condition of roads has given birth to Chitral Development Movement (CDM), a Civil Society Organization with the slogan of ‘Roads Our Demand’.

It must be noted that CDM is a non-political entity that thinks that the construction and improvement of the road network in Chitral is a key to the viable solution of the multifarious problems of Chitral. The CDM expects that the government and other concerned agencies will take priority action on the issue of roads and divert sufficient resources on yearly basis to construct new roads and improve the existing ones.

All of the existing valley roads are narrow, dirt and dangerous calling for urgent attention before more lives are lost to accidents.

A survey by Google of the roads all over Chitral including the valley network of roads and the main road from Lowari Tunnel and Arandu to Broghil on the one hand and to Gobor and Shandur on the other, gives a staggering total length of 1046 KMs. If you divide this number with the age of the country you come up with 14. In other words if they had bothered to construct and maintain 14 KM road per annum this number would well have been achieved. It is an admitted fact that well-built roads not only open opportunities for economic well-being of the people but will give a boost to the tourism industry that will in turn add to national economic growth.

Can we genuinely hope that these ugly scenes of frequent horrible accidents and loss of precious lives is stopped within the next decade of technological revolution?

When we talk of roads we also include the numerous bridges that fall on the way. This reminds a bridge over Yarkhun River in front of Shuist village that used to be called ‘Pililianser’ meaning the bridge of ants since it was highly dangerous to cross for humans. Thanks to NGOs who supported to replace it with a much better cantilever bridge.

Accepted that Chitral has multiple problems both in the environmental,social and economic fronts. The solution of economic problems unfolds itself by building safe roads. In the century of technology we are clamouring for safe roads, what a tragedy.

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