The long and winding Gerneli Sadak

If all roads lead to Rome, Fawad Chaudhry has some sage advice for the Triumvirate

As always, I went home to my village for Eid: Ladher lies on the banks of the River Jhelum near Mangla, the old town named for the goddess Mangla Devi. The town is, of course, known for its ancient fort and for the powerhouse built on Pakistan’s second largest lake. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that Mangla has what is probably the only army cantonment designed and built by the Americans. In the early 1960s, the town played host to droves of Americans engaged in designing and supervising the construction of the Mangla Dam. The UK-based firm Binnie & Partners, along with the Mangla Dam Contractors – a consortium of eight US construction firms – spent about five years on the dam project. Once they had finished, they left their spanking new residential colony as a parting gift: today, the Pakistan army and WAPDA staff are housed in what is easily one of the most well kept cantonments in the country.



But back to roads. The road connecting my village to Lahore in the south and Rawalpindi in the north is no ordinary road: it is the Grand Trunk (GT) Road or Gerneli Sadak. I have borrowed freely from that cyber-fount of knowledge, Wikipedia, to give you an idea of just how important this mediaeval route really is. Read on.

Apparently, the GT Road covers no less an impressive distance than 2,500 kilometres. Originating in Chittagong, it traverses Sonargaon in the Narayanganj District of central Bangladesh, reaches India, passing through such evocative places as Howrah, Durgapur, Varanasi and Kanpur, continuing onward to Aligarh, Delhi, Ambala, Jalandhar and Amritsar. The stretch between Delhi and Wagah on the Pakistani border is known, less romantically, as the NH-1. From there, the GT Road becomes known officially as the N-5 as it wends its way determinedly north through Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Jhelum, Rawalpindi, Nowshera, Peshawar and Landi Kotal. It then enters Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass and continues west through Jalalabad and Surobi, ending at Kabul. That, ladies and gentleman, is the venerable life’s-journey of the Grand Trunk Road.

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It seems a shame, then, to think that our honourable Prime Minister and Chief Minister have probably never travelled such an historical route – and, even if they have, then failed to appreciate its sinew. The terrible state of the road is evidence enough of this. Lahore is Sharif heartland, as it was for rulers from Akbar to Ranjit Singh, but the difference is that the latter had a penchant for other cities too. Akbar loved Delhi as much as he loved Lahore, and the Maharaja of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, held Amritsar in as much affection. The Sharif brothers, however, are firmly one-city men. In the last five years, the money they have spent on Lahore (from government coffers, obviously) more than rivals anything the old kings might have thought of spending on one city alone. On average, in the last few years, 52 percent of the Punjab’s total development budget was spent on Lahore.

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To return to my travels. As one reaches Shahdara, where the Mughal emperor Jahangir and his beloved wife Noor Jehan are buried, the GT Road becomes so chaotic that it is almost impossible to enter Lahore. From this point, the last station on Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s beloved metro-bus project is just a few kilometres away, but impossible to reach by car. After two hours of waiting futilely for the traffic to inch forward, I finally took a U-turn and opted to travel 35 minutes to the motorway in order to enter Lahore. Of course, this did not mean my troubles were over: the city’s roads had turned into lakes after the monsoon rains. My ire was not helped by the thought that a master plan for Lahore aimed at handling four inches of rain has been pending with the Punjab government for fifteen years – yet it carries on spending vast amounts of money on metro systems instead of basic sewerage schemes.

The Punjab government must seriously rethink its development priorities. It cannot go on creating super structures in and around one city! Punjab is a province of 120 million people and it cannot be run as a municipality. Decentralising its administrative and financial authority is essential. This will also mean restructuring the National Highway Authority with an independent board appointed to look after its affairs. Otherwise, the blithe wastage of resources we keep seeing will go on and on.

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