Lack of coordination among various civic agencies and slow pace of progress need to be addressed
By SHABBIR H. KAZMI
Feb 13 - 19, 2006
The importance of an interlinked, efficient and cost effective overland transportation system cannot be undermined. It is a must for speedy delivery of goods and keeping the industries running in any country. The history of subcontinent shows that Sher Shah Suri undertook construction of Grand Trunk Road. The British Raj opened the first railway link between Karachi and Kotri as back as in 1861. It is also evident that the railway track from Peshawar to Karachi closely follows Alexander's line of march through Hindu Kush mountains to Arabian Sea.
One may wonder why the British Raj linked Karachi to Kotri by rail as back as in 1861 and then linked it to Keamari in 1889 and by 1897 the line from Keamari to Kotri was doubled. A little probe shows that the possibility of Karachi as a seaport was first explored in the mid of 19th century. Sir Henry Edward Frere when appointed Commissioner Sindh, after its annexation with Bombay in 1847, sought permission from Lord Dalhousie to begin survey of seaport. He also initiated the survey for railway line in 1858 and in a brief span of about three years Karachi-Kotri line (105 miles) was opened for public traffic.
The expeditious work and efforts to extend the line up to Peshawar clearly establishes that British Raj was keen in exploiting natural resources of subcontinent and developing it as a potential market for the finished goods, particularly textile products produced in Manchester. As the Raj acquired control on foreign trade, it also embarked upon development of modern infrastructure by assigning priority to roads and railways. The Raj succeeded in creating an impression that it was trying to bring prosperity to the area. This priority was based on further developing foreign trade by ensuring swift movement of raw materials and finished goods. Demand for steel was created through construction of roads and railways, requiring building of hundred of small and big bridges. It may be said that the aim was to bring prosperity to the region but the hidden motive was exploitation of the hidden treasures. The Raj spent only a fraction of its earning from the subcontinent. Despite that it built an elaborate infrastructure. It is also regrettable that after the independence Pakistanis failed to expand it.
Railways remained the most efficient system for centuries but negligence after the independence promoted road transportation. However, it is on record that more than 12,000 people operate over 200 freight stations on the railway network. This network serves Karachi and Bin Qasim ports as well as four provinces. It transports locally produced agricultural and industrial products and imported commodities. On top of this passenger trains carry more than 150,000 passengers daily. Pakistan Railways has been playing major role in the movement of all types of goods. These include imported products like POL, wheat, coal, fertilizer, rock phosphate, cement, sugar and containerised traffic. It claims to offer quality service at competitive rates.
According to some analysts the major reason for dismal state of infrastructure in Pakistan is that the successive governments assigned lowest priority to this sector. First of all the annual allocations for infrastructure development projects was too meagre and on top of this poor planning and widespread corruption never allowed the country to get what it needed the most. The quality of roads and bridges remained poor. It is also on record that most of the government buildings, particularly schools, collapsed in October earthquake last year only because the construction quality was too poor. The same is also true about roads and bridges.
These analysts also say that a number of infrastructure projects, particularly highways and bridges were built from funds provided by international donors. However, hardly any plan was prepared to ensure cash inflow from these projects for the repayment of debt. The result was that such debts kept on mounting. Though, the donors never refused to finance such projects they were often full of complaints about delays in the execution of the projects, overruns and wastages.
The National Highway Authority (NHA) was created in 1991. It was given the task to plan, promote and organize construction, development, operation, repairs and maintenance of highways, motorways and other strategic roads. As the custodian of the highway assets of Pakistan, it has been assigned mandate to provide safe, modern and efficient transportation system. It plays an important role in the development of micro and macro economy. It also enhances national integration by increasing the social and economic dependence among the provinces.
According to data about 9,000 kilometres, which accounts less than 5 percent of entire road network is under NHA management. Some of the projects termed Motorways need specific mention. The first project, commonly known as M-1 is 154 kilometres long connecting Islamabad with Peshawar. M-2 linking Lahore with Islamabad is 335 kilometres long. It has six lanes and it was constructed by Daewoo of Korea and completed in 1997. M-3 from Pindi Bhattian to Faisalabad is 52 kilometres long. M-4 with 200 kilometres length connects Faisalabad with Multan. The list goes on with M-5 linking Multan to D.G. Khan, M-6 with 450 kilometres connecting D. G. Khan to Ratodero, M-7 Kakkar to Dureji to Karachi is 300 kilometres long, M-8 connecting Gwadar to Ratodero is 892 kilometres long and M-9 linking Karachi to Hyderabad is 135 kilometres long.
NHA is also responsible for further improving and expanding the existing highways. These include National highway, Indus Highway, Karachi-Khuzdar-Quetta-Chaman Highway and Quetta-Nokundi-Taftan Highway. These highways are playing an important role in promoting trade with Central Asian countries and Iran. It may not be wrong to say that National Highway is the longest highway having 1,756 kilometres length. It connects Karachi to Torkham via Multan, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar. It carries about 60% of entire traffic of the country. Another important project of NHA is Kohat Tunnel project. It has a total length of more than 30 kilometres, including 1.88 kilometres long tunnel.
Addressing a ceremony on 28th January, Chairman NHA, Major General Farrukh Javed said that the government has assigned the authority the role to build roads and improve its network, which would reduce travelling time from Peshawar to Karachi by half. He also said safe, fast and environment friendly highways and motorways would improve local as well as international trade. This would not only provide easy access to the Central Asian countries to improve their trade with Pakistan but also in the global markets by using the seaports of Pakistan.
According to data, road transport has become the dominant mode of travel in Pakistan, accounting for more than 90% of passenger traffic and 96% of freight. With overall demand for road transport growing, development and up-grading of the network has been assigned top priority by the government. This endeavour is being fully support by the Asian Development Bank. The Bank has recently signed a Multitranche Financing Facility, a new ADB financing product, intended at overcoming critical bottlenecks by improving existing networks, creating new ones, and advancing policy reforms. The investment is structured into three batches of projects. The first comprises three sample projects with total 376 kilometres length; the second batch includes five projects with 460 kilometres length and the third one to be determined later.
Reduction of fairs on domestic routes by PIA has further intensified the competition among the airlines. This is expected to ease pressure on trains and buses. In certain parts of the country one can only travel by air and flights are often disrupted due to bad weather. This problem can be overcome by constructing all weather roads. In the northern part of Pakistan construction of tunnels is expected to bring down travelling time and reduction in fairs.
It is heartening to note that along with construction of highways and motorways the present government is also giving due attention to the construction of farm to market roads and improving quality of roads in big cities. Though, a lot of development work is going on throughout the country but two complaints are common 1) lack of coordination among various civic agencies and 2) slow pace of progress. The projects, which should have not taken more than a couple of weeks, often remain incomplete after months.
Though Pakistan Railways claims that its freight rates are competitive, a lot of upcountry cargo is transported by road. According to some estimates more than 2,500 trucks carrying various types of cargo, dry as well as liquid, depart from Karachi per day. These trucks create worst traffic jam in Karachi and are also of high risk (carrying inflammable cargo). The traffic load has come down due to construction of two separate lines for black and white products, but growing imports of machinery and raw material keeps the pressure on roads.
There cannot be two opinions that travelling by trains is more comfortable as compared to buses. However, low quality of service, slow speed of trains and black marketing of tickets are discouraging people to travel by trains. Lately, Pakistan Railways has initiated project to increase the sectional speed on Karachi-Lalamusa mainline to 140 kilometres per hour, dualization in the missing link of track and installation of modern signalling system. It is also adding new diesel and electric locomotives as well as high capacity/high speed freight wagon and passenger coaches. It also aims at bringing improvement and providing connectivity to Iran, India and Gwadar port to Afghanistan and onwards to Turkmenistan.
Presence of unauthorized terminals of inter-city buses, particularly in Karachi, has become a major problem. Some of these needing specific mention are 1) on M. A. Jinnah Road near Taj Complex, 2) at Karachi Cantonment railway station, 3) on University Road at old Sabzi Mandi, 4) at Al-Karam in Liaquatabad and 5) Sohrab Goth. This may not be a unique for Karachi but similar bottlenecks exist in each and every city, be it big or small. The blame for the existence and proliferation of these terminals goes to respective cantonment boards, city governments and local police.
It is often said that traffic jams in big cities are common. However, it is also true that most of the time disturbance in the flow of traffic is due to VVIPs movements. An attempt is being made in Karachi to ensure non-stop flow of traffic on Shahrah-e-Faisal by constructing flyovers and reducing number of intersections. It may have made VVIPs' movement faster but has become a serious problem for people using public transport. Absence of overhead bridges also adds to the miseries of pedestrians, particularly during peak hours and for olds and children.
Transport sector is the largest user of POL products. The recent hike in international prices of crude oil has sky rocketed POL prices in Pakistan. Though, global prices have come down but there seems to be no relief for the local consumers. Use of compressed natural gas (CNG) in the transport sector, as low cost and pollution free fuel is being promoted by the government. However, its price has also gone up. Low pressure at filling stations has become the worst problem for the vehicle owners. It may be worth mentioning that a large percentage of public transport (taxis and rickshaws) is being run on LPG.