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SINCE April 2002 when President Pervez Musharraf laid the foundation stones of the Northern Bypass and the Lyari Expressway Project (LEP), the latter has been the focus of heated controversy among concerned citizens of Karachi. It has displaced 24,400 poor families and its feasibility is doubted by some traffic management experts so much so that it is constantly being asked, “Was this really needed? Will it improve the city in such a big way as to atone for its negative fallouts?”

In any case it is too late in the day to stop the work, nearly 50 per cent of which has already been completed. The director of LEP, Mr Yusuf Barakzai, says if you count the infrastructure (culverts, drain outlets, foundation pillars, etc.), 80 per cent of the work has been done.

“People don’t realize the importance of LEP. When it is completed, the roads of Karachi will be emptied of the traffic jams that have become a permanent feature of the city,” claims the director.

Being projected as a magic wand that will change the face of Karachi, the LEP will have 50,000 vehicles plying on it daily, says the LEP director. The traffic coming from Gulshan, Gulistan-i-Jauhar, Nazimabad and other localities in the north of the city and moving to the city centre will use the Lyari Expressway because here the flow will be free and unobstructed. The south-bound dual lane expressway will carry the traffic from Sohrab Goth to Mauripur and vice versa on the north-bound section. Sixteen flyovers are planned above the bridges that connect the two sides of the city across the Lyari and four intersections will allow for traffic to get off the expressway or enter it.

“If many of the NGOs and media persons were to have their way, they would still want the work on the expressway stopped, so opposed are they to this project,” Mr Barakzai comments.

He took the writer for a drive on the under-construction expressway in his jeep – all 16.5 km of it – as he explained the details. Even though at places we had to make detours to the riverbed where there were gaps in the construction, it was a thrilling experience. The only distraction was the thought of the exorbitant cost (Rs8 billion being spent only on road construction) and the misery of the uprooted people that kept nagging one all the time. The expressway itself is a masterpiece of engineering. After all credit must be given to the FWO for the fine job it does when building a road.

But then why should the experts be opposed to something that makes such fantastic promises? A few days earlier I had driven on the road that runs parallel to the expressway. It was congested and in a pathetic state. Where the land had been cleared and the expressway structure had already been completed like a high wall cutting off the south of the city from the north, trucks and tankers have already started vying for room to encroach upon.

But you do not see all this ugliness from the majestic heights of the expressway –- it ranges from 4 to 5.5 metres, rising to 13 metres at the flyovers. It is a different world up there. But will it fulfil all those promises that are being held out when the project is completed in mid-2007? Whether the deadline is met -– it has already had to be extended from the original target of November 2004 — depends on the speed with which the land is cleared and handed over to LEP. The revenue department says it will complete demolition by June 2006. But problems are anticipated from some areas -– Mianwali Colony and Hassan Aulia village which have political clout and the leased land in PIB Colony where owners have gone to court.

There are four major aspects of the Lyari Expressway that must be kept in view when analyzing this mega-project. One is its traffic management role. The second is the cost factor. The third is its implications for the environment. The fourth is its impact on the people who have been displaced. Here we shall take up the first three. Resettlement will come later.

Background: The Lyari Expressway was nowhere in the picture until 1986. The Karachi Master Plan 1975-85 had proposed the Northern and Southern Bypasses to enable traffic going upcountry from Karachi port to bypass the city and thus ease congestion and pollution. The Southern Bypass was designed to go through the Defence Authority area and link Karachi port with the National Highway. It had to be dropped because of stiff resistance from the DHA on environmental grounds. The Northern Bypass that could have been easily constructed then was not built on account of the apathy of the policy makers.

Public attention was focussed on the Lyari, which wrecked destruction in 1977 when heavy rains caused severe flooding to 200 deaths. Wapda did come up with a flood protection plan but this was never implemented. In 1986, the Lyari Expressway was proposed as an alternative to the Northern Bypass, but was found unfeasible since 100,000 people would have to be evicted. The floods in 1993 led to the revival of the plan for the expressway as a device for flood protection apart from its function of providing another traffic corridor. Opposition from civil society led the Sindh government to arrange public hearings on the project in 1996 after which the Lyari Expressway was dropped and attention was focussed on the Northern Bypass for port traffic. This was found feasible in view of the fact that most of the land on which it was to be built was uninhabited. Four years later in 2000 the Karachi Port Trust decided to begin work on the Bypass on a BOT basis. It was to be a six-lane highway 68 km in length that would connect Mauripur to the Super Highway beyond the Toll Plaza at Sohrab Goth.

In June 2001 there was a change of heart and the government came up with the idea of building both the Northern Bypass and the Lyari Expressway together in the budget for the bypass alone. This two-in-one approach appealed to the highest quarters though it is not known how this feat was to be achieved by those masterminding it. The work was entrusted to the National Highway Authority and the FWO was appointed contractor for LEP and the NLC for the bypass. The alignment of the bypass was changed to make it shorter and its lanes were reduced to four to cut the cost.

With the Northern Bypass and the Expressway connecting identical points -– Mauripur and Sohrab Goth -– it is difficult to see how it will be ensured that port-related traffic uses the Northern Bypass (56 km) and not the expressway (16.5km). Mr Barakzai is confident that they will be able to divert the heavy trucks to the Bypass by imposing a heavy toll of Rs500 on the trucks using the Expressway. On the bypass they will pay only Rs50.

This need may not arise because an architect who has been watching the expressway coming up says it is not designed to take heavy vehicles. Even buses may not be able to use it because the salient at the flyovers is so steep that loaded buses will not find it easy to negotiate them.

One will have to wait and see how much traffic the expressway will take. It is difficult to believe that the idea of cars paying a toll of Rs5 and buses Rs20 for using the expressway will be accepted without a protest. Karachiites have resisted paying even a parking fee of Rs5. Mr Barakzai admits that we do not have a toll culture. But he believes this can be inculcated and he cites the example of Japan which he recently visited and where toll is collected on inner city roads.

As for the hope of traffic congestion being eased by the Lyari Expressway, professionals express their doubts. Arif Hasan, director of the Urban Resource Centre, a staunch critic of the expressway, believes that congestion can be eased if the wholesale markets, the small scale manufacturing units, and the warehouses that crowd the area between M.A. Jinnah Road south of the Lyari and the Estate Avenue north of the river were to be shifted to the vacant land round the Northern Bypass and the garbage recycling units be taken to the landfill sites. He insists that what was basically needed was sensible traffic management. The LEP did not even initiate studies on the traffic flow before the project was launched.

With no integrated traffic management plan for the city, and no move to build a mass transit facility, it remains to be seen if the addition of this extra corridor for the traffic of only one area of the city will resolve the congestion problem and facilitate the movement of vehicles.

Arif Hasan also finds the expressway socially and aesthetically undesirable. “It will cut the city into two and will not look at all becoming.”

The cost factor should not be ignored either because it will cut a big hole in the nation’s pocket. Originally it was budgeted for Rs5.1 billion. Now it is expected to be Rs8 billion –- inflation and increase in the scope of work have enhanced the cost. But Hassan says that the expressway could have been cheaper if the designers had not gone in for the expensive sand-filled wall all the way to the top. Since the wall is also to serve as an embankment, it could have been solid upto the flood level only with openings on the upper tier.

Environmentalists can be prepared for the worst. This is what a report obtained from the revenue department says: “Whether the environment evaluation, i.e., impact assessment undertaken separately in case of water, sewerage, solid waste, etc? Report the findings/recommendations, along with the measures to be taken for mitigating the environment pollution effects in consequence to implementing the project. No such assessment undertaken but it is certain that the natural environment along this stretch of Lyari river will improve substantially after the construction of the expressway.” Wishful thinking?

(Next: Lyari Expressway — resettlement).