PESHAWAR -- Construction on the Swat Motorway is making progress, with stakeholders saying it will strengthen the economy of Malakand Division by connecting the region with other parts of Pakistan.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) authorities opened the first phase of the 81km-long mega project on May 21.
Malakand Division, comprising six under-developed districts of KP, is known for its scenic tourist resorts. However, two years of Taliban oppression between 2007 and 2009 and the ensuing military operation to oust the militants damaged the infrastructure of the area and drastically reduced tourism.
Former KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak, whose tenure ended May 31 along with that of the rest of the government, inaugurated the project by opening 14km of the expressway for traffic from Karnal Sher Khan Interchange in Swabi to Dobian village.
Work on the rest of the project is in full swing and will be completed in phases, Khattak said at the inauguration ceremony.
The expressway will open for traffic through Katlang by the end of June, completing up to 50km of the project, while completion of the remaining 30km is expected in September, he said.
The high-speed corridor will prove to be a "game changer" for the population of Malakand by increasing tourism and reducing transportation time for goods, Khattak said.
The project will provide easy and direct access between the six districts of Malakand -- Swat, Shangla, Battagram, Chitral, Buner, Upper Dir and Lower Dir -- and KP and other parts of the country, thus ushering in a new era of development and prosperity, he said.
The project is unique because it is the only expressway constructed by a province using its own resources and reflects the KP provincial government's vision of bringing development to the region, he said.
"The Swat Motorway was launched in August 2016 with a stipulated period of 18 months for completion at an estimated cost of Rs. 41 billion ($354 million)," said Engineer Ahmad Nabi Sultan, managing director of the KP Highways Authority.
The project was delayed by construction and technical difficulties, but workers have completed the first phase and will finish the rest soon, he told Pakistan Forward.
"The four-lane Swat Motorway starts from Swabi at Karnal Sher Khan Interchange on the Peshawar-Islamabad Motorway and will end at Chakdara in Lower Dir District," he said.
"The expressway will have six interchanges and two tube tunnels of 1.5km length each," he said. Apart from connecting districts of Malakand, it will also provide easy access to Bajaur Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) through Lower Dir District.
"Completion of the Swat Motorway will not only serve to bolster the economy of Malakand Division but also the whole of KP by attracting both national and international tourists," said Shaukat Yousafzai, a member of the KP Provincial Assembly and spokesman for the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
"A majority of the cultivated produce, especially from fruit orchards, rots from an absence of facilities for early transportation to other parts of the country," said Yousafzai, who comes from Shangla District of Malakand. "With the construction of this road, the problem will be resolved and the public will benefit economically."
The KP government has planned the project with a focus on stimulating the dormant economy of Malakand Division, which suffered badly from militancy and terrorism, he said.
"The Swat Motorway project has raised hopes for the revival of the tourism industry in the region, especially in Swat, which is called the 'Switzerland of Pakistan' because of its eye catching beauty," said Ahmad Khan, a businessman and former president of the Swat Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The Taliban's two-year-long stranglehold on Malakand and the subsequent military operation greatly damaged its economy, negatively impacting commercial activity in the region, he told Pakistan Forward.
Niaz Ahmad, owner of a hotel in Kalam Valley, Swat, welcomed the inauguration of the first phase of the Swat Motorway.
"Such projects are highly needed to boost the economy of the region, which is reeling from the impact of militancy and terrorism," he told Pakistan Forward, stressing the importance of completing the remaining portions of the motorway quickly.