Seeing is believing. And what you really see is unbelievable. The stretch from Lahore to Sahiwal is 100 miles. It will take three hours to reach Sahiwal if you use your private vehicle and don’t over speed. The most noticeable is congestion; all along the road one passes through an interminable bazAar full of people. Where have so many people come from? From nowhere and from everywhere, it seems. The bigger question is: why so many? So many because so many are there. There is no bar on producing babies. It’s a free country and you are free to produce as many as you like. Most of the born, young and grown-up, have nowhere to go to except the road.

Economists declare that a road for the underdeveloped countries is a window on the world of development. But ironically the road of ours has all the unmistakable signs of underdevelopment. What one sees constructed or semi-constructed all along the highway is shoddy and haphazard displaying our penchant for ugliness. Most of the constructions are illegal. The National Highway Authority (NHA) have never dealt with the violations. It’s in fact [allegedly] in collusion with the violators. It’s a question of ‘mutual benefit’. The rules regulating the highways have been thrown to the wind because they were the ‘vestiges of colonial times’. And in this free country it’s free for all. You can not only build along the highway in violation of rules but can also add to the piles of trash that line it.

Rancid smell of rotten food tells of the restaurant doing brisk business, sludge and slurry speak of muddy tyres of trailer trucks and miasma of stinking water in the open sewers is a paean to our post-Harappa [Harappa had underground sewers] civilisational advance. So on the highway it’s not ‘the more the merrier’. It’s in fact a spectacle of ‘the more the uglier’.

Moving on the highway one gets sick and tired of ugliness in the ‘more’ and desperately wants a fleeting glimpse of beauty in the ‘less’. Horror of horrors is that almost all the bypasses designed to keep the vehicular traffic moving, away the congestion of towns, have turned into sort of shanty towns disrupting the flow of traffic. Nobody knows and yet everybody knows why the NHA has allowed the people to flout the rules. Mutual benefit perhaps! So as long as you travel, you are constantly invaded by a ubiquitous eyesore that both the sides of highway have become. But please avoid looking at the eyesore as it can be deadly.

The road has become a death trap because it’s not being maintained at all. It has become rough and bumpy. And on a rough and bumpy road what can you expect other than rough and bumpy ride. It has developed potholes at several places as if uneven surface wasn’t enough. Driving at a high speed when tyres hit potholes out of nowhere you literally feel like going under. Your heart jolts as your vehicle bolts like a frightened horse. You are lucky if it doesn’t spin out of your control. You worry as much about your personal safety as you do about the health of your vehicle. What gets damaged most is the suspension and of course tyres. The damage can be immediately visible or invisible that shows up later as wear and tear. Has anyone calculated the monthly or annual cost of such wear and tear? Obviously the NHA, which is [allegedly] guilty of dereliction of its primary duty of maintenance, has done no such a thing. The cost would run into hundreds of millions. It beggars belief that the NHA can’t maintain the highway. But the fact is that it doesn’t. What could be the reasons? Incapacity or lack of funds? It can’t be incapacity as the NHA is an old department which can rightly boast of its accumulated experience and honed skills. The lack of funds can’t be presented as a pretext of doing nothing either.

Pointing to just one source of fund, which every motorist is acquainted with, will suffice. Toll is a robust source of funds. From Lahore to Sahiwal, a 100-mile stretch,they have two toll plazas on the way. Every vehicle that comes on the road pays hefty toll. How many vehicles, big and small, use this one-way road in 24 hours? You would find it hard to keep the count. Where does the collected tax go if it doesn’t land with the NHA? Why the huge sum thus generated is not spent on maintenance? One can put up with the unconcern the NHA displays towards the convenience of the motorists but how can one condone its criminal indifference in not taking into account the overall cost of excessive wear and tear of vehicles that causes avoidable economic loss. From the look of things one can guess that expenses for keeping the road in good repair are less than the aggregate cost of wear and tear. Human loss, which is irreparable, is no one’s concern, it seems, among those who are responsible for safety of the commuters. It’s a sign of an abysmal performance that people are denied the service they pay for.

Sahiwal, a fertile district with high literacy rate, is doubly deprived in terms of connectivity with the provincial capital; highway is in a shambles and access to motorway [M3 which links Lahore and Multan] is tedious. The situation bespeaks of poor political representation of the area which is a product of city’s peculiar composition; it neither has landed aristocracy nor industrial elite. The system is oiled by networks of patronage and cronyism. City or area that cannot find a lever to have an effect on the national power structure through accepted channels never gets what it deserves. Expanded network of motorways have considerably reduced traveling time between different cities. Unfortunately Shaiwal has been left out of the loop making the traveling in any direction tiresome and time consuming. But still Sahiwal has what no other place in the Punjab has; Harappa and legendary hustlers of [river] Ravi who got a mention first in the Rig-Veda, and the tomb of Ahmed Khan Kharal, an iconic freedom fighter. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2020