It is almost bizarre how quickly over Rs 12 billion worth of work has worn out so completely and begun falling to pieces. This being Pakistan, however, few bother to pay attention to the dangerous and blatant shortcomings of corrupt contractors repeatedly getting away with seriously sub-standard work. This is now the case with the much acclaimed Murree Expressway which is becoming increasingly dangerous, and for once, the cause of all this mortal risk does not lie entirely with the lorry drivers.
Construction of the Islamabad – Murree Expressway which is eventually supposed to reach all the way to Muzaffarabad in Azad, Jammu and Kashmir, began with much fanfare back in September 1999 and was completed in May 2008 while in regular use by local residents since at least 2007. It did not officially open until the then Prime Minister, Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani, got around to performing an expensive opening ceremony at the end of August 2011. Since then, it has (quite literally) gone downhill with some stretches subsiding to a shocking degree.
The Expressway has never, by any stretch of the imagination, offered travellers safe passage; fast perhaps, but never safe.
Its up and down carriageways, separated as they are by a low central crass-barrier, encourage speed and despite warning signs and strategically located cameras, drivers test them to the limit as much as they possibly can. They overlook the fact that the road is not spread out straight for more than a few hundred feet at a time and is comprised mainly of a series of curving loops, some of them materializing without adequate warning. When the road surface is wet, this can be, as some drivers have learnt to their physical cost, extremely lethal indeed. Badly maintained vehicles with worn out brakes and bald tires slide into their deaths when the brakes are slammed on suddenly without a clue about safely manoeuvring vehicles on slippery road surfaces. Adding to the danger, the road camber is often wrong and often throws vehicles in a direction other than the one intended.
During rainy spells, which will resume with full force with the summer monsoon, the Murree expressway is a death trap: Added to slippery roads, wrong cambers and increasing stretches of subsidence, rock falls and mud slides are common. These are a result of massive environmental destruction and destabilization caused by huge bouts of blasting through previously narrow mountain valleys and the loss of trees that once helped to hold steep mountainsides in place. Since the expressway was constructed, there have been a frightening number of slides which leave the road surfaces littered with stones, boulders and mud as well as huge pools of water collecting on the carriageways.
The visibly bad maintenance since the completion of the expressway has caused other, assorted complications. Retaining walls that are supposed to prevent landslides (and do not allow for the fact that when a mountain decides to move, nothing is going to stop it), are cracked in places, leaning at odd angles, with boulders bursting out of badly constructed ‘cages.’ Entire chunks of concrete safety barriers festoon alongside, making the lot of it resemble an obstacle course, not an expressway.
Further aggravating the expressway fiasco is the rapid expansion of an incredible amount of roadside construction which, according to ‘original’ plans, wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. The majority of this illegal construction is, of course, a motley collection of disreputable looking restaurants, some of them with children’s play areas attached, from which all manner of vehicles enter and exit directly from and to high-speed carriageways. If this wasn’t dangerous enough, roadside spots where local people have stuck pipes into hill streams to fill radiators, hose down engines and wash cars are parked on hard-shoulders, impeding traffic for the duration.
There are monstrous hoardings impeding a beautiful view; motorbikes sneaking through gaps in the central divider, people wandering across the road instead of using overhead footbridges, camels, buffaloes, goats, dogs and, come nightfall, wild pigs wander the road adding to the danger.
The often smart, (but not always efficient), Highway Police, do admittedly try their level best in adverse circumstances but many drivers, (or drivers who may not posses either licenses or up to date vehicle documentation), do not always follow police instructions to pull over for checking. If the police are already busy or perhaps short staffed, they slam the accelerator to the floor and speed off, faster than ever, towards well deserved oblivion where, if all is fair and equal, the corrupt contractors, inefficient engineers and lawless land grabbers will be waiting to meet them.
The writer has authored two books titled The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War, The Parwan Wind - Dust Motes and lives in Pakistan.