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MURREE: Every day, some 25,000 commuters use the 48km Murree-Kohala Road that connects the province of Punjab with Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). It is in such disrepair that its tale of woes runs longer than the road itself.

The story of its neglect goes back to 1978. That year, Gen Ziaul Haq’s military regime put five key inter-provincial roads under federal control, including this road, which links Islamabad with Kashmir as well.

These five roads were declared national highways and a National Highway Board was created to monitor their development and maintenance.

The original Murree-Kohala Road was built in the colonial period to link Srinagar and Rawalpindi. It was named Defence Road after the armed conflict over Kashmir after partition.

Though the Punjab government retained its “right of way” after Zia’s military regime took control of the important road, its Lower Topa to Kohala stretch started deteriorating for want of maintenance and developed pot holes over time.

Locals were only able to get attention from officials in 2016 when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif listened to local representatives in Murree and directed the National Highway Authority (NHA) to cede control of the Lower Topa-Kohala section of the Murree-Kohala Road to the Punjab government. Soon after this, Rs1.4 billion were earmarked for upgrading the road but no work has started on this yet.

NHA was created through an Act of the Parliament in 1991 for the planning, development, operation, repair and maintenance of national highways and strategic roads specially entrusted to it by the federal or any provincial government or “any other authority concerned”.

Six surveys conducted for the extension of Islamabad-Murree dual carriageway to Kohala during the PPP government served Lower Topa, Chagana, Jhika Gali, Bhurban, Khuldana, Lower Surjal and Malkot sectors. But the NHA declared the existing route most viable, low cost and economic choice.

A NHA source said the Azad Kashmir government agrees with that choice. But the NHA could not “resume the renovation process” involved because of “resistance from the provincial government”, according to a source.

Meanwhile, the offer of financial assistance by the Japan International Development Cooperation Agency repeated thrice, has fallen by the way, sources said.

Some of the renovation work conducted in the 1980s has survived the vagaries of the past 28 years. It received scant attention from the PML-N rule in the Punjab early this decade.

After Nawaz Sharif’s return to power in 2013, he directed Commissioner Rawalpindi retired Captain Zahid Syed to arrange sufficient funds for renovation work but the premier was told the provincial government could not release funds for the purpose as it was a motorway project.

However, Punjab government allocated Rs40 million for the renovation which did not help because the contractor assigned had walked away in the meantime.

The provincial highway department also sought expressions of interest (EoI)from construction firms for the renovation of the road. The National Logistic Cell and Frontier Works Organization who got the job were to start work in the first week of January 2017.

Meanwhile, the Rs1.44 billion that the Punjab government had earmarked in 2016 for the “reconstruction” of the road has been whittled down.

The EoI sought by the provincial highway department mentioned the figure of Rs1.14 billion but renowned firms were reluctant to take the job on at that cost as the heavy rains a few months ago had caused widespread damage to road. Their disinterest led government planners to seek out local contractors for the job.

Federal Minister for Petroleum Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who represents the Murree constituency in the National Assembly, held a meeting with the prospective contractors but without success.

And the funds kept for the project lapsed with the end of the fiscal year and will have to be reallocated in the provincial budget for the new fiscal year; the department will seek out firms for the job anew.

Some in the construction industry say starting renovation work will interfere with the Neelum Jhelum Hydel project which uses the Murree-Kohala Road for transporting heavy equipment.

AJK Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider is said to have communicated such fears to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

However, Hafiz Usman Abbasi, special assistant to the petroleum minister and coordinator in his constituency, told Dawn the real issue was prospective contractors’ demand for higher rates for the job.

Local contractors agreed to stay away from bidding for the job and also persuaded outsiders to do same.

Mr Abbasi said negotiations are taking place and a solution will soon be found and set aside the argument that the Neelum Jhelum power project stood in the way of taking up the road’s reconstruction.

Sub-Divisional Officer Highways Iftikhar Qureshi said the Punjab highway department has sent the case to the finance department and the rates will likely be revised in July and then new tenders will be called.

In the mean time, Rs37 million are being spent to repair the severely damaged portions of the road from Lower Topa to Dewal on the instruction of Chief Engineer Communication and Works Punjab Shafqat Buttar, Mr Qureshi added.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2017