KARACHI, Feb 13: In what was widely seen as an election campaign gimmick, President Pervez Musharraf inaugurated the southbound carriageway of the Lyari Expressway on Monday. The inauguration performed from the safety of the Governor’s House was designed to provide an occasion for the MQM-controlled city government to add one more feather to its cap – one more project in its long list of ‘achievements.’

It is a different matter that for all practical purposes the expressway is still incomplete. Worse still, it is disgracefully behind schedule. The benefits it will bestow on the citizens of Karachi will only be known when it becomes operational.

President Musharraf had laid the foundation stone of this project in May 2002, and the National Highway Authority that was responsible for it had promised to complete the expressway in 30 months – that is by Nov 2004. Even now, only one section of the expressway (from Sohrab Goth to Mauripur) has been partially completed – work on 16 flyovers and four intersections still goes on.

Costing a fabulous Rs8.2 billion, the expressway will supposedly ease traffic congestion in the city by providing a signal-free corridor for light traffic going from Sohrab Goth to Mauripur and then on to the KPT, Merewether Tower and Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan Road. Given the absence of a holistic approach to town planning and traffic engineering, one cannot be sure whether the expressway will really “empty the roads of Karachi of the traffic jams that have become a permanent feature of the city,” as the director of the Lyari Expressway Project had boasted to me when I had visited LEP about two years ago.

Over this period many other flyovers, underpasses and signal-free corridors have been completed in the city only to show that small stretches offer a free flow of traffic, which invariably ends in a bottleneck at the exit point.

Will it be the same with the Lyari Expressway? Heavy traffic will in any case use the Northern Bypass, which entails a distance nearly thrice as much as the 16.5km expressway. The more pertinent question that will be asked is whether the Rs8.2bn spent on the expressway was worth it. There are experts who believe that better results could have been achieved by skilful traffic management and at a phenomenally lower cost.

What is disturbing is that enough planning did not go into the construction of the expressway. For instance, no environmental impact assessment was undertaken. This was admitted by the revenue department whose records note: “No such assessment undertaken but it is certain that the natural environment along this stretch of the Lyari River will improve substantially after the construction of the expressway.” Nor was any survey conducted to assess how land use will change after this massive project becomes operational.

Human cost

The human cost of the Lyari Expressway has been incalculable. Nearly 24,000 families have been displaced — often quite brusquely — and ostensibly settled in three sites at a cost of Rs5bn. While inaugurating the project President Musharraf remarked that as a schoolboy he had seen people living in shanty towns in the Lyari riverbed and he was happy that they had been shifted to townships where basic amenities such as schools, playgrounds, parks and other facilities are available.

That is true but there is another side of the picture as well. The three sites — Taiser Town, Hawkesbay and Baldia — are far removed from the city centre and transport is not readily available at all hours. Many of the affected people lost their jobs simply because they could not commute to work early in the morning.

Besides, the amount paid to those uprooted (Rs50,000 per family) was not enough to build a roof above their heads. Many complained of lack of amenities such as water supply and health facilities. Some never received the compensation that had been promised while it was claimed that some who never lived in the Lyari River area managed to get a plot, thanks to their ‘connections.’

That all has not been hunky-dory for the evictees in their new homes is evident from the fact that the land mafia has been quick to move into these townships. Why would anyone well settled in a place with no problems wish to sell off his plot?

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