ISLAMABAD, Dec 2: The government has launched two road projects in Chakwal district at a cost of Rs8 billion but the poor of the area wonder for whose benefit?
“How do we benefit from it? There will be more buses and trucks when the Mandra-Chakwal road becomes dual-carriage, but think about the fares they would be charging,” observed Mirza Fakhar, a thoughtful 67-year-old resident of Bhaun, a town 12 kilometres from Chakwal.
Indeed, the question asked most by the people of the district is: “Why they had to strip off the railway track that had served us well, and cheap, since 1912?”
Built a century ago, the Bhaun-Mandra rail service used to be the economic lifeline of the people of Chakwal until the 1990s when successive governments dismantled and sold the tracks.
The British colonialists laid the 74-kilometre long track to link the main Peshawar-Calcutta rail line with Chakwal, primarily for the benefit of the soldiers they recruited from Chakwal area. It facilitated the travel of the soldiers to Calcutta and Bombay on way to the frontlines of the First and Second World Wars - or on home leave.
It also served the local population and helped generate economic activity in the area.
However, the PML-N governments that came to power in 1991, and again in 1996, seeing not much utility in the train service, auctioned the track in parts. The succeeding military regime of Gen Pervez Musharraf finished dismantling the entire 74km track in 2005-06.
Interestingly, the auction of the last portions was won by a small-scale steel trunk maker of Jhelum.
Today, the historical Bhaun Railway Station looks on buses and wagons taking on and disembarking passengers in its shadow and vendors and other merchants encroaching on its land, in full view of a police picket.
“Alas, the (Chakwal) district is not the same without the rail service,” sighs Mirza Fakhar who lives close to the station. It still evokes the romance of rail travel of bygone days in him.
“We used to head out for Rawalpindi in the mornings. At Mandra the train would pick up more passengers for work or business in the garrison city - like the Sialkot-Lahore Babu Train,” he said.
According to him, office workers, students, patients, farmers and entrepreneurs of Chakwal have suffered enormously from the closure of the rail service. They have to travel on crammed buses and wagons. Businesses in Chakwal area have also suffered, except perhaps for the transport operators.
And the poorly-built roads have taken on the burden of 18,000 tons of cement that the area exports every month - all the way to Karachi port for its final destinations in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and other countries in the region.
Over 3,000 trucks roll out of the Bestway, D.G. Khan and Pakistan cement factories in the area every day.
“Imagine the savings to businesses and the country in money and resources if rail was used,” said former Nazim of Chakwal Sardar Ghulam Abbas. “The problem is with the rulers of this country who cannot right a few wrongs,” he said.
Sardar Ghulam, who was once a provincial minister, is nostalgic about his student days and start of his career. “Rail used to be the safest means of transport. And it used to be a beautiful journey,” he said.
When the locals brought the dismantling of the tracks to the attention of the Supreme Court in May 2009, the court could not fathom why national assets were being destroyed by the people in authority. It called for a feasibility to revive the rail service.
Divisional Superintendent Pakistan Railways Syed Munawar Shah, sheepishly accepted that government policies had been “less considerate” to the needs of common man, and loudly asserts that all over the world the railway depends on freight operations.
“As directed by the Supreme Court, a PC-I was prepared two years ago that put the cost of the revival of the (Bhaun-Mandra) track at approximately Rs2 billion,” he disclosed, but could not promise the revival of freight trains.
Former Chakwal Nazim Sardar Ghulam Abbas however claims the cement factories had not only guaranteed business to the railways but also “given in writing to pick up 50 per cent of the cost of revival of the rail freight service”.
That may be so but the Divisional Superintendent, Pakistan Railways, has not seen anything concrete done.
Now, the people of Chakwal district have pinned their hopes on the elected leader from the region, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf. But he seems to be more intent on building roads, instead.