I crossed the windy Lowari Top on my way to Chitral recently. Locals were carving out snow from its shaded recesses for sale not just in Chitral but also to the Afghans at Arandu. The 8.75 kilometers Lowari Tunnel project must, though, rank in the Guinness Book as perhaps as one of the worst managed.
The tunnel, it is claimed, will be completed by early 2017 after more than 42 years. The Chinese made the Attabad tunnels in Hunza of nearly 7 kilometres cumulative length in 4 years, and the 57 kilometres Gothard Base Tunnel in Switzerland was completed this summers in 17 years. Barring some patches, most of the roads in the Chitral Valley are unpaved. The region, it seems, figures very low in the developmental priority.
Locals say that the Chitral Valley is heating up which causes excessive glacier melt and outbursts and sudden surge in river flows to inflict tragic losses. Human settlements are strung along the water routes and the barren mountains are unable to impede water flows. These are the deleterious impacts of the climate change phenomenon for which the vulnerable communities lack resilience. Disaster responses tend to have a relief orientation with financial compensations for the injured and dead, and for houses destroyed and damaged. The 2015 flood affected regions reveal near absence of the disaster recovery interventions entailing rebuilding of livelihoods, and the lost infrastructure including the hydropower plants.
Water and trees propel the rural economy. Mr Muhammad Saleem Marwat, the District Forest Officer of Chitral informs that the forest cover has dwindled from 5% of the covered area to less than 3%. He attributed excessive use of timber for firewood and open grazing as the threats to natural trees regeneration. There is a need, therefore, to widely introduce the alternative energy sources for heating and cooking, improve upon community inclusive forest regeneration and livestock management practices, and also introduce aerial seeding.
The fauna of the Hindukush is in retreat owing to the dwindling natural habitats. This is the view of Mr Saeed Yaqub Shah, the Wildlife Range Officer of Mastuj. The wildlife management needs to benefit from more proactive and scientific practices that are extant, for example in the Deosai region to save the vulnerable bears. Mr Yaqub indicated that the brown bear and snow leopard are facing extinction in the region and the markhor, ibex and lynx population is being marginally sustained.
Local travels are very instructive in gauging the agents of change for development. It is the grass root development organisations like Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), the Agha Khan Development Network (AKDN) and contributions by UN agencies and donors that are making the difference. Community level mini hydel projects are lighting the villages, providing the primary education and reinforcing the basic health care. As per the KP Education Department, Chitral boasts of 98% literacy rate among the primary education group with second lowest dropout rate in the Province. Baring the mega Golan Goal power project, there is little evidence of government sponsored developmental activity. The District, though, has the hydro potential of lighting up the entire Province and the adjoining regions of Punjab.
Despite its close location to the security sensitive regions of Afghanistan and KP, incidence of terrorism remains very low in Chitral. Inquiries point towards a very successful enactment of the community supported security paradigm, besides other measures. These are tightly knit communities where an alien person is promptly identified and an alert goes to the local law enforcing agencies.
The idyllic and somewhat insular nature of Chitral will change with the anticipated completion of the Lowari Tunnel and opening of communication with down country. Towards the east, Chitral can easily be made accessible to the culturally similar Gilgit region by metaling and widening the existing road. Complemented by an improved local communication network, Chitral hopefully will see much prosperity, investment and sustainable use of its natural resource base. It can very much benefit from the CPEC initiative. There will be a downside, however, to such development in the possible loss of its indigenous character and community cohesion. This change, however, seems inevitable.
The un-metalled road leading to the picturesque Ayun Valley housing the Kalash tribe is in an extremely poor shape. The Valley is visibly reeling under the destructive impact of the 2015 flood. Despite presence of some madrassahs, the local community members concurred to a harmonious existence among the Kalash and Muslim communities. A local Kalash lady, Shaideen Lalik Jan, introduced me to her siblings. Her son is studying in a university in Peshawar and the younger daughters attend to the local college and school. One of her daughter had converted to Islam, is married to a young man from Mardan and both are living in the US. The Kalash culture, I fear, faces the risk of dilution in the face of the external influences associated with modernity.
One cannot help notice the mini-economic zone that in many ways integrates Chitral with the adjoining Afghan provinces of Kunar, Nooristan and Badakhshan. With food grains and myriad necessities of life flowing out to these regions from Chitral, Dir and adjoining regions of FATA, smuggled vehicles make their way back. There is much that unites the people on either side of the Durand Line in terms of a common culture and economic interests. Policy makers, however, tend to perpetuate historical prejudices in orchestrating events like the recent flare up across Torkham, as opposed to promoting initiatives that address the common concerns.
Some conclusions from a book that I read during my travel are very relevant to the sad state of governance in many deprived regions of the country, 128 years on. ‘The Making of the Frontier’ is written by Colonel Algernon Durand. He describes his mission in 1888 that inquired disputes between Hunza and Nagar principalities and the Srinagar run Kashmir province in the backdrop of reported Russian incursion(s) in the region. His journey took him across predominantly Muslim principalities in the Gilgit and Chitral regions. He summed up his impressions of the local rulers as largely insular, utterly seized with the perseverance of power, and welfare of their subjects and introducing better governance seemed to be their least priority.
Chitral, however, embodies many positive trends rooted in community centred governance and development. Such practices can be emulated in regions bearing a similar social makeup. I would like to conclude with recollection of wonderful evenings that I spent in the historical Chitral Scouts Officers Mess with its rolling lawn and towering chinars. The Mess holds precious memorabilia including pictures of Lady Diana’s visit. A stone is engraved on its front façade dated July 1934. Not only the Officers Mess, but every valley in Chitral reflects it unique rich past. Some are overlooked by the 25,289 feet high majestic Tirich Mir, the highest mountain of the Hindu Kush range.