Lowari—Light at the end of the Tunnel

Submitted by Shams Uddin on Tue, 2008-10-28 15:10.
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The new 8.5 km long Lowari Tunnel, offering for the first time an all-weather, shorter passage, connecting the remote Chitral valley to the rest of the world, could herald an era of far-reaching economic, social, cultural and political changes for the whole Hindu Kush region. Various workshops and conferences have heaped praise on this mega-project as 'an extraordinary showcase of human intervention' which obsoleted a huge natural barrier that isolated Chitral over a recorded history of 4000 years of human settlement...

Meanwhile, public opinion on the post-Lowari scenario is divided: some argue that the negative influence of the project, in the long run, will outlast the positive impacts leading to a host of social, cultural and environmental downsides. Others believe that the shorter (travel from Chitral to Peshawar will be cut from 12 hours to 8) and more reliable road connection will speed up the process of development in the following ways:

First, new jobs will be created for and by the locals through increased trade with the outside world and improved market access for local products such as fruit & vegetables, medicinal herbs, marble and precious stones. Chitral may now also develop as an all-year destination for tourists, who now visit the region from May to November, only for six months. Tourists will have access even in winter to rare wildlife, such as the elusive snow leopard and markhor.

Improved transportation and communication will mitigate the hardships of patients, business communities, overseas workers and students going outside particularly in winter. Many patients in need of emergency medical care, have died in the District Headquarters Hospital as they could not avail the advanced medical facilities owing to snowfall on the Lowari and Shandur passes and cancellation of the in-coming PIA flights because of bad weather. Overseas workers and tourists now miss flights as they remain stranded in an unpredictable weather condition, which harmed the image of Chitral as an accessible tourist destination.

The tunnel will help save the precious life of those who just fall victims to the frosty weather and snow avalanches on the Lowari Pass when they make last-ditch effort to reach the Dir district to the south. The all-weather access will be helpful in removing day-to-day price hikes by reining in the spectre of hoarding—particularly in winter—when Chitral remains cut-off and becomes a heaven for hoarders and profiteers.

Seventh, the major energy sources—electricity and natural gas—will be supplied to the energy-starved Chitral district through the tunnel. At present electricity supply line to the region over Lowari pass has neither been reliable nor cost-effective. Every year heavy snowfall and avalanches destroy the transmission system leading to shutdown for months. The tunnel will be the best alternative to pass electricity and natural gas supplies through. This will reduce the growing pressure on the already shrinking forest belt in the south and help improve environmental conditions and standards of living.

Those who are not so enthusiastic about the tunnel fear that:
- industries and business opportunities will become controlled by non-locals, particularly from the neighbouring districts, who have practical experience in both macro and micro enterprises as compared to the less skilled people of 'feudalist' society. Natural resources such as marble, iron ore, water resources and precious stones have already been taken over and are being exploited by a non-local moneyed-class at a throw away price, and this will only worsen when the tunnel opens.
- new industries and businesses will be installed and space will be occupied in a haphazard manner, breeding complex social crimes, environmental hazards and healthcare issues. A timber mafia will grow to cause irreversible damages to ecology and natural biodiversity.
- indigenous communities will loose out the meagre tracts of land to the intruding privileged class, who will pay 10 times higher a price for a piece of land as what the locals normally pay now. This is likely to marginalize the indigenous communities the way it happened in Murree and Abbottabad.
- the traditional peaceful culture of Chitral will succumb to the growing un-accommodative settlements with different cultural backgrounds where maintenance of law and order will be all the more difficult. It must be noted that the peace, friendliness, hospitality and sustained family system of the local communities, if any at all, is linked to the traditional life style of the indigenous communities largely characterized by the inaccessible geographical nature of Chitral for a long recorded history.
- illegal businesses such as drug trafficking, drug addiction, robbery and other related social crimes—in a backdrop where Chitral is known to have the lowest crime rate in the entire country—will increase.

The protection of the cultural, social and economic interests of the indigenous communities in the Hindu Kush lies in the fact that their cultural heritage be protected based on the following recommendations:

(1) Protection of Chitral’s indigenous communities through the facilitation of the UN Forum of Indigenous People for the protection of their social and economic development with substantial care for their culture. The Forum has approved UN convention to the effect that land property of the indigenous people would not be purchased by non-local entrepreneurs. Pakistan is a signatory to the convention. Through this august forum it is proposed that the convention be applied to Chitral in the post-tunnel scenario so that the indigenous communities will be able to live according to their traditional culture.

(2) There is a law enacted by the Provincial Assembly of United Punjab during the government of Unionist Party in 1937 that imposes a ban on the purchase of agricultural land by non-agrarian entrepreneurs. This law has served the purpose of small farmers in Punjab for the last 73 years. This precedent can be followed suit by the provincial government of NWFP and district government of Chitral to save the small patches of agricultural lands of Chitral [2.75 of the total land mass].

In sum it might be argued that rapid transportation and communication, as potential agents of social change, play greater role in shaping people’s life style in the modern age. Therefore we can not afford to remain in isolation as we did in the past when technology was not thought of as necessary a component of life. Nevertheless the point worth giving a serious consideration is how the indigenous communities are going to grapple with the challenges emanating from the post-tunnel scenario? Do we have the capacity to manage the very complex phenomenon stemming from the all-weather access that will carry along both opportunities and threats? All what we discuss depends on the degree of alertness, timely response and assessment of the ground realities in order to positively influence the situation in keeping with the broader parameter of our peaceful atmosphere. The people of Chitral—both Khow and Kalash—need to manage the processes of development without compromising on the vital cultural values of peace, friendliness and hospitality as guiding principles for future development.


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