PESHAWAR -- Malakand Division is still reeling from the damage caused by militancy and the Taliban presence from 2007 to 2009, but Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) authorities are undertaking a major highway infrastructure project to spur economic development and revive tourism in the area.
Security forces drove militants out of the region in Operation Rah-e-Rast in May 2009, causing the displacement of about 2.2m residents for several months. Still, the people of Malakand feel the damage caused by the Taliban violence and by the military operation that ousted them, notably in a collapse of tourism.
In response, authorities are undertaking efforts like the Swat Motorway project, launched August 25 and expected to be completed within 18 months, which aims to provide fast and direct access to the region from other parts of the country.
The KP government is focusing on the economic revival of Malakand because it was the KP division worst hit by militancy and terrorism, said KP Information Minister Mushtaq Ghani.
“Swat Motorway will have a tremendous impact on the economy of Malakand Division, and its financial benefits will be enormous for people of the region,” he told Pakistan Forward.
"This project is unique because of its great size and because it is the first-ever motorway to be constructed by a provincial government in the country," Mushtaq said.
Previously, the federal government built all motorways. For KP authorities to undertake this project shows the provincial government's firm resolve to make KP developed and prosperous, he said.
The 81km-long high speed corridor will be a "game changer" for people of Malakand by reducing travel time between Swabi and Chakdara, Lower Dir, from three hours to under an hour, Mushtaq said.
Truckers and tourists alike will benefit from greater speed.
"The project will provide direct access to six districts of Malakand, including Swat, Shangla, Battagram, Chitral, Buner, Upper Dir and Lower Dir," Mushtaq said.
"The project also will boost the agricultural economy of KP in general and Malakand in particular by providing efficient farm-to-market access for farmers who previously ... could reach only local markets," he said.
“The four-lane Swat Motorway will start from Swabi at Karnal Sher Khan Interchange on the Peshawar-Islamabad Motorway and will culminate at Chakdara in Lower Dir District,” said Managing Director of KP Highway Authority Muhammad Uzair.
The corridor will have six interchanges and two tunnels, each 1.5km long, he told Pakistan Forward.
"Apart from connecting districts of Malakand, it also will provide easy access to Bajaur Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) through Lower Dir District to under-developed areas," he said.
The cost of the project is Rs. 41 billion (US $410m), and authorities aim to complete it within 18 months, according to KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak.
The motorway "will usher in a new era of economic development and creation of employment opportunities in Malakand Division”, he said in Swabi at the ground-breaking on August 25.
The project contract was awarded to the Frontier Works Organisation under a public-private partnership, he said.
"I am personally supervising its implementation to ensure timely completion in a transparent manner," Khattak said at the ground-breaking.
“Development of remote areas and of those affected by militancy is the priority of the KP government,” he said.
To improve living conditions for KP residents, such developmental schemes are necessary, he said.
"The Swat Motorway has the goal of reviving terrorism-battered Malakand Division by increasing tourist visits and farm production and improving commercial activities in the region," Khattak said.
Ample land is available, enabling workers to build the road with minimal displacement of local residents, he said.
“The mega project of Swat Motorway will open new vistas of commerce and trade in Malakand Division, benefiting its dwellers who have suffered a lot from the militancy,” said KP Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser.
The project will create jobs and improve communication between Malakand and other areas, he said in his message about launching the project.
“Provision of direct access to isolated communities in Malakand to under-developed areas also will help promote social harmony through frequent interaction,” he said.
Additionally, the project will help reduce traffic congestion on existing National Highway N-45, he said.
“The Swat Motorway project is a very commendable initiative and will have very far-reaching positive impact on the weak economy of Malakand Division,” said Iqbal Khan, secretary general of the Swat Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Local residents greatly appreciate the initiative and expect a positive change in their living standards, he told Pakistan Forward.
"Malakand's economy fully depends on the tourism sector, which was shattered by militancy in the region," he said. "After restoration of peace in the country and the launch of such projects, the people of Malakand will witness revival of the lost glory of their region."
“Construction of a new and shorter route will bring more tourists, besides providing easy market access to people of the region,” said Zahid Khan, president of the Hotel Association of Swat.
Zahid urged KP authorities to also concentrate on improving connecting roads in Malakand that suffered flood damage in 2010.