THE irony was not lost on anyone. Battling for the survival of his government, a combative Nawaz Sharif coolly went ahead and inaugurated his pet project, the first section of the motorway from Islamabad to Lahore. And in the process, he used the occasion to garner support for himself and castigate the 'conspirators' who, he claimed, were trying to destabilise his government and unseat him.
Though it was overshadowed by the political developments in Islamabad, the inauguration was an elaborate affair under intense media glare. Built at a cost of $1 billion, the 334-km, six-lane motorway was initiated during Sharif's first term. It had a chequered beginning, because soon after, Sharif was removed from office and the government which succeeded him reduced it to a four-lane motorway. Subsequently, however, it was restored to its original six-lane specifications. It is the first such motorway in South Asia and would considerably cut down travel time between Islamabad and Lahore to about three hours.
The Lahore-Islamabad section is the first section of the grand Pakistan Motorway Project, which will ultimately provide the north-south road link in the country, joining Karachi with Torkham via Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar. Built by the South Korean multinational, Daewoo
Corporation, the motorway is undoubtedly of international standards. The government is keen on completing a road link to Central Asia by 2005. Next month, the Islamabad-Peshawar section is going to be operational.
Sharif has been pushing for the motorway project, arguing that it would give a big boost to the economy, particularly that of the region along which it is runs. As it is, land prices along the Islamabad-Lahore section have gone up tremendously. The government also plans to build industrial estates along the Lahore-Islamabad motorway, which too would boost the economy.
Interestingly, Sharif was still on the motorway when news came that the Quetta bench of the Supreme Court had held the appointment of chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah in abeyance, further precipitating the constitutional crisis. Besides, he himself did something unusual by announcing a new loan scheme for the unemployed masses. Under this scheme, any unemployed person can take a Rs 1 lakh loan on his or her personal guarantee. Considering the state of the national treasury, it stumped many people. But observers saw it as another populist move by a prime minister embroiled in a confrontation with other institutions of the state.
The motorway also has its critics. They feel that though the motorway will definitely push economic activity, the cost is too high. Besides, the Lahore-Islamabad section does not have much industry compared to the old highway on the Karachi-Lahore route. More importantly, critics say the motorway will duplicate the existing national highway, which really needs to be strengthened, as in India.