ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated Islamabad's new Metro Bus Project, with a speech to a packed Convention Centre on Thursday.
Nawaz was elated at the completion of the million-rupee transport project, as he smiled and made light-hearted jokes aimed at his brother — Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.
|Nawaz is all smiles at the inauguration of the new project. -DawnNewsscreengrab|
"People are saying this [project] looks like we are in another country... this is not another country. This is a changing Pakistan!" the premier said.
Referring to the sophistication of the project, he joked that commuters may use it "just for fun".
He said the Metro Bus is going to be a major convenience for commuters travelling between the two cities. Nawaz gave examples of students and government officers who would have to spend thousands each month for their commute between the cities. "Instead of changing two or three routes, they can now reach their destination in 15-20 minutes."
Hinting at the protracted Islamabad sit-ins spearheaded by the rival Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the premier said the project met with some delays but has finally been completed.
Nawaz also gave hope to the denizens of Karachi saying that Greenline Rapid Transport System will soon be launched in the metropolis.
|Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, along with other leaders inaugurate the Metro Bus Project in the federal capital. — PM House|
Provincial chief ministers, federal ministers as well as leaders of various political parties are among those who attended the inauguration.
The 23-kilometre line, where 68 air-conditioned buses will carry an estimated 135,000 passengers a day along exclusive, signal-free lanes, links the neat, leafy capital with its sprawling twin city Rawalpindi.
The project was built in 13 months — six months longer than planned — at a cost of 44.84 billion rupees, and will use buses from Turkey.
Critics have branded the Metro Bus as “wasteful”, saying priority should be given to spending on education, health and the environment.
But the government hopes it will give the economies of the twin cities a boost by making travel easier and cheaper for commuters currently reliant on a patchy network of minibuses and vans.
Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif said the service would be a boon for people on low-incomes.
“It will also help cool the anger of people who have to travel in shoddy vans while government officials, politicians and rich people drive past in their air-conditioned and bullet-proof vehicles,” Shahbaz told journalists earlier this week.
Dust and disruption
With gleaming grey tiles, escalators, elevators and modern glass and steel structures with wavy red roofs, the 24 stations of the new line would not look out of place in a more developed country.
Completion of the project will be welcomed by many if only as heralding the end of more than a year of major construction work.
Since the ground-breaking in February last year, large sections of key roads have been dug up, causing huge traffic snarl-ups — to add to the noise and dust of the building work.
"They dug up the entire route at once without any planning to divert traffic," said office assistant Ishtiaq Ahmed, who travels daily from Rawalpindi to Islamabad by car.
"The daily commute time has increased by one hour at least because the construction has caused congestion on all roads and I've had several warnings from my boss for turning up late," Ahmed told AFP.
Work was scheduled to be completed by December, but was repeatedly delayed, notably by months of political protests in the capital last summer over alleged election fraud.
Civic rights activist Zafarullah Khan said the project was imposed on the people and no public hearing and environmental impact assessments were carried out before its start.
"It is an artificial transplant in the chaotic development model of Islamabad. Who decided? The citizens of the capital were not consulted," Khan told AFP.
He said the “only benefit” would be that for 20 rupees people can enjoy a ride in an air-conditioned bus in the height of summer.
Islamabad was designed in the 1960s on a grid pattern and some have slammed the metrobus as the latest act of vandalism on the original plan.
They say the new bus route spoils the grandeur of the central Jinnah Avenue, the broad boulevard which runs from Parliament House to the far end of the the capital.
'Huddled like chickens'
It is the second Metro Bus scheme in Pakistan, after the one that opened under Shahbaz Sharif's guidance in Lahore in 2013.
As in Islamabad, that met with scepticism initially but has proved popular, currently ferrying up to 12,000 passengers an hour along its 29-kilometre length.
Officials say a mass transit system is indispensable for any city the size of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, and the existing set-up had made commuting an agonising experiencing for people, particularly women and the elderly.
Private mini-vans, many rickety and unroadworthy, are often dangerously overloaded, with men, women, children and students stuffed in cramped spaces like livestock.
“The Metro Bus will be a great boon for commuters as currently they have to travel in small over-crowded vans and dilapidated mini-buses,” office worker Aurangzeb Khan told AFP. "It's quite a struggle everyday to catch a van and then be huddled into it like chickens."
Women and the elderly are pushed and harassed during travel, he said, hoping the metrobus might bring a measure of dignity to the daily commute.