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THE strategic Lowari Tunnel project has suffered from inordinate delays resulting in cost overruns.

At an elevation of 3,200 meters, the Lowari has a high mountain pass that connects Chitral valley with the Upper Dir district. It is the shortest route from Chitral to Peshawar, but remains closed for almost six months— late November to late May—due to heavy snowfall during winter. The remote Chitral remains cut-off during this period from the rest of the country impacting logistics and economics of the region.

The project has a chequered history, though envisioned almost six decades ago but launched in 1975.

Construction of Lowari Tunnel and Access Roads, as the project was to be titled, was planned to be undertaken in two phases. In the first phase, the 8.54 km long tunnel was to be constructed with access roads, while in the second phase a railway track was to be laid. The mini-electric rail system was planned to transport a mix of loaded cargo and passenger vehicles through the tunnel. It was planned to have a capacity of 150 heavy goods trucks or equivalent per hour.

The project, on completion, would have facilitated all-weather year-round transportation. The project has a total length of 133 km. The main tunnel has 7.14 meter maximum height and 7.55 meter maximum width. There are two access roads on both sides of the tunnel i.e. from Dir and from Darosh, of 9.3 km and 9.2 km, respectively. The auxiliary tunnel is two km long. The project could not be completed by October 2008 as scheduled, and could only achieve 40 per cent physical progress; both the access roads were constructed in July 2007. The on-going work was suspended due to various factors, basically terrorism and security situation. The date of project completion was therefore revised to September 30, 2010.

Work on the project resumed without any emphasis on the tunnel construction, and the progress was insignificant during the subsequent three years. The work was again suspended from May to October 2009. However, the unfinished tunnel was temporarily opened in 2009-10 winter for light traffic in a controlled manner.

At this critical juncture of advanced stage of the project, the government decided, in October 2009, to change the project design—from rail tunnel to road tunnel: the road passageway to be located on Nowshera-Dir-Chitral Road (N-45).

The reason behind was the realisation that the O&M of the rail tunnel would be difficult. The consultants were asked by the NHA to make necessary modifications in the project design. This was done without conducting any additional feasibility study including environment assessment.

The revised design would require major modifications in the tunnel, for example, the existing cross-section of the tunnel would have to be enlarged up to three meters to provide space for two-lane road including two meters emergency area on both sides, along allied facilities. The revised PC-1, with escalated project cost of Rs17.602 billion was prepared.

Subsequently, the ECNEC, in its meeting held on November 11, 2011, approved the modified project at a total cost of Rs18.132 billion, also taking into account the current rupee parity and huge penalties (estimated at Rs211 million) payable to the contractor for suspension of work on the part of the government/NHA.

Work on the project was discontinued again in June 2011, primarily due to financial constraints. There was an allocation of Rs164 million under the 2010-11 PSDP but funds were not released. The funds allocated to Lowari Tunnel project, reportedly, were diverted to new infrastructure projects mainly initiated in Multan.

As the contractors were not paid for long, they de-mobilised machinery, equipment and staff, abandoning the project site, and foreign consultants and contractor’s engineers left the country.

Progress on the tunnel construction as on June 30, 2011 was 44.5 per cent and an amount of Rs6.414 billion was spent. The tunnel is in an unfinished condition as its shotcrete lining, retaining walls and metaling of ground road have not been completed. The single road passing through the tunnel is uneven, unstable and filled with rock pieces and water sediments.

There is no lighting arrangement and exhaust system has not been installed. Maintenance of tunnel and access roads has not been done. The project is now scheduled for completion by March 2014.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, under immense pressure from Chitral lobby, had allocated Rs2 billion ($22.5 million in foreign exchange) in November 2011 to enable contractors to resume work on the modified project. Funds were released by the government in December last year but so far the contractors have not re-mobilised, and construction work has not yet been resumed.

It is reported that various financial and administrative issues with the contractor and consultant have not been resolved.

The prime minister has promised completion and commissioning of the project by December 2013, four months ahead of the schedule, which does not seem to be realistic given the present status and slow pace of work.

Termed as the longest tunnel in Asia, the Lowari Tunnel is of great national importance. It would contribute to socioeconomic development of the area. Rich minerals and other natural resources could be exploited optimally, which would result in promoting trade and industry, besides tourism, in the region.

In fact, Lowari Tunnel will open up the Chitral valley to the world establishing durable road links with the Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan. It would reduce current 14-hour drive from Chitral to Peshawar by almost half. But the lack of political will and lowest priority accorded to the project keeps the nation guessing as to when the project will be completed.