QUETTA: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated the western route of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Balochistan's Zhob on Wednesday and laid the foundation stones of two key projects: upgradation of the Zhob-Mughal Kot section of the Dera Ismail Khan-Qila Saifullah Highway (N-50) and the Qilla Saifullah-Waigam Rud Road section of the Multan-Dera Ghazi Khan-Qilla Saifullah Highway (N-70), reported Radio Pakistan.
The Zhob-Mughal Kot Section is part of the western route of the CPEC which starts from Burhan on the Peshawar-Islamabad motorway (M-1), and after moving through DI Khan, Zhob, Quetta, Surab and Hoshab, ends at Gwadar.
The Zhob-Mughal Kot section is 81 kilometres (km) long and its upgradation will cost Rs9 billion, and is expected to be completed by 2018. The Qilla Saifullah-Waigam Rud section is 128km long and will cost around Rs 8bn.
The prime minister was also briefed on the projects. Chairman National Highway Authority Shahid Ashraf Tarar while addressing the inauguration ceremony said motorways and expressways in Pakistan in the next three years will span lengths thrice as long as they currently are.
From Khunjerab to Gwadar, all areas will be connected by means of motorways, he said, adding that the routes would make it easier for traders to access markets.
Balochistan's development top priority: PM
Addressing attendees at the inaugural ceremony, the premier urged all political forces to create a united front in order to eradicate the curse of terrorism from the country.
"I cannot do it alone," PM Nawaz emphasised.
The premier said the project would open new vistas of development and prosperity in the region. "The country will progress after this project," he stated. "Pakistan's progress will start from Balochistan."
Nawaz emphasied that Balochistan's development was his government's top priority, and that the province played a crucial role in the development of the country.
He also briefly referred to the progress made with India in the matter of bilateral negotiations. PM Nawaz thanked the Indian prime minister for visiting Pakistan. "It has been agreed that we will re-start the dialogue between Pakistan and India," he said.
No negative propaganda against CPEC: Zehri
Chief Minister Balochistan Nawab Sanaullah Zehri felt the project was the "positive stride" towards the country's economic development. Alluding to recent controversies over the CPEC project, he further said, "There has to be no negative propaganda against CPEC."
Senator Hasil Bizenjo, meanwhile, said that had the development projects been completed in a timely manner in the past, there would have been long-sustained peace in the troubled province. "Poverty and unemployment are the underlying causes of terrorism," he said.
JUI chief Maulana Fazal ur Rehman similarly felt that the CPEC project was a matter of "immense pleasure", since it addressed basic issues in the province and would help pave the way for durable piece in the region. The Maulana also said that peace in Afghanistan was crucial for Pakistan. "The war-torn country provides access to resource-rich central asian states," he added.
Mehmood Achakzai also stressed upon the necessity of smooth and transparent working relations with neighboring countries to make the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) pipeline project a success. He demanded that PM Nawaz take all political forces in confidence regarding the giant CPEC project.
"We want to develop at all costs," Mian Iftikhar of ANP said. However, while he felt the western route was an important step in the process of eliminating terrorism from the country, the port of Gwadar, he felt, belonged to Balochistan first.
"Gwadar first belongs to the Balochs, and then to Pakistan," Iftikhar stated.
The ceremony was attended by key party representatives and government officials, including JUI-F chief Maulana Fazal ur Rehman, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) chief Mehmood Khan Achakzai, secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) Mushahid Hussain Syed, ANP Central General Secretary Mian Iftikhar Hussain Shah, National Security Adviser (NSA) Gen (retd) Janjua, Federal Minister for States and Frontier Regions Lt Gen (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, Federal Minister for Textile and Industries Abbas Khan Afridi, and Senator Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo.
Balochistan Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri earlier said that the CPEC would help provide jobs to millions of youths in Balochistan besides boosting the local economy.
The CPEC is a 3,000-kilometer network of roads, railways and pipelines to transport oil and gas from Gwadar Port to Kashgar city, northwestern China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, China Daily reports.
Proposed by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during his visit to Pakistan in May 2013, the CPEC will act as a bridge for the new Maritime Silk Route that envisages linking three billion people in Asia, Africa and Europe.
An official agreement on the corridor was signed between the two countries in May this year during President Xi Jinping's historic visit to Pakistan.
A flagship project of the Belt and Road initiative as well, the CPEC intends to revive the ancient Silk Road with a focus on infrastructure, and constitutes the strategic framework of bilateral cooperation.
The project links China's strategy to develop its western region with Pakistan's focus on boosting its economy, including the infrastructure construction of Gwadar Port, together with some energy cooperation and investment programs.
It also involves road and railway construction including an upgrade of the 1,300-km Karakoram Highway, the highest paved international road in the world which connects China and Pakistan across the Karakoram mountains.
The CPEC will reduce China's routes of oil and gas imports from Africa and the Middle East by thousands of kilometers, making Gwadar a potentially vital link in China's supply chain.
Controversy over CPEC routes
The project has generated controversy with political leaders particularly of smaller provinces alleging the project has been altered to benefit Punjab, who criticise the western route being inagurated first.
The route, which includes the Gawadar-Kashgar road, has been designed for heavy transportation so it benefits local as well as international trade that will flow through it.
The eastern route, meanwhile comprises motorways from Gwadar to Sukkur to Multan and then to Lahore and further.
Critics say that different specifications of the two routes will automatically dictate the transporters' first choice, resulting in the use of eastern route as the only use.
The route apparently under its original plan ran from Gwadar to Quetta, then up to Zhob before veering east towards Dera Ismail Khan.
The government changed this route to go straight east from Gwadar towards Khuzdar, then slightly northeast to cross the River Indus near Ratodero and connect with the road network in Sindh, a decision that was heavly criticised.
The government strenuously denied that any route changes were made, arguing that both the eastern and western routes are being pursued, and on the request of the Chinese, the second route is being built first simply because it is cheaper to do so.