“During my four years in the government, the Lowari Tunnel project gives me immense pleasure due to its vitality and importance and its leverage to change the plight of Chitralis and I will always feel proud on the completion of this project,” remarked then prime minister Nawaz Sharif while inaugurating the tunnel on July 20 this year.
He had probably sensed the situation leading to his ouster from power that he hastened to inaugurate the tunnel which was earlier scheduled for July 29. He managed to get his name ingrained in the plaque of inauguration of the project which had a special significance in the history of Chitral.
This was perhaps a momentous day fitted to be a milestone in the history of Chitral when it got an all-weather route to connect it with rest of the country which used to remain closed for seven months of the winter and spring seasons due to Lowari Pass.
Located in the extreme north of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the lap of lofty Hindukush mountains, Chitral is area-wise the largest district of the province with a population of 318,000 according to the 1998 census. The district remained virtually ‘locked’ when the Lowari Pass (10,230 feet above sea level) received heavy snow, severing communications between Chitral and rest of the country.
After the closure of Lowari Pass for the season, the only source of physical contact between Chitral and rest of the country was the national airline which operated three Fokker flights between Peshawar and Chitral since 1964. The Pass is nicknamed as ‘blood thirsty pass’ as there is hardly any village in the district which has not lost its men to avalanches and blizzards in the area.
The pre-Lowari Tunnel days of Chitral are replete with stories of human tragedies. There are instances when a person working in Peshawar had to wait for the opening of the tunnel from one to seven months when any of his close relatives died. One can feel the agony of a person in such a situation, as he was hapless to join his family.
The district would often run short of commodities of daily use and the year 1966 is still remembered when scores of people died of famine. The last three months of the closure of Lowari Pass were troublesome when the markets started running short of commodities which also included life-saving drugs and other medicines. Patients declared serious in the local district headquarters hospital and referred to tertiary care hospitals in Peshawar and Islamabad had to wait for their death silently and haplessly as they could not be taken to the down districts during the closure days of the tunnel.
On the persistent demand of MNA from Chitral, Atalique Jaffar Ali Shah (1971 to 1977), then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto started work on the project in Sept 1975, but to be abandoned one year later by the same government for paucity of funds. The project was consigned to cold storage till 2005 when then president Pervez Musharraf restarted work on it. The work continued till 2009, but was again stopped due to funds shortage. The work was resumed in 2014 by the present government and former premier Nawaz Sharif visited the site for four times and made lavish allocations in the budget to ensure its timely completion.
For Chitralis half a century ago the construction of tunnel beneath the Lowari Pass was an unimaginable work and one could hardly think of an all-weather route connecting the district with rest of the country.
MPA from Chitral Sardar Hussain Shah recalls that many people had died with the longing to see the day when the tunnel would become a reality.
He said that a provincial minister from Chitral, Qadir Nawaz Khan, in then PPP government (1974 to 1977) had bequeathed his son-in-law to call aloud in his grave when the tunnel became a reality.
Mr Shah is of the view that the historians in future will divide the history of Chitral as pre- and post-Lowari Tunnel era keeping in view its impact on the socio-economic and political canvas of the area. He said that construction of the tunnel used to be a promise of most of the contesting political parties and its completion had brought to an end the ‘politics over tunnel’. He said that in the wake of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project the Chitralis had been demanding of the government to make it an alternative route. “Chitral will no more be known as a backward district in the post-Lowari Tunnel era,” he said.
Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2017