The reconstruction and widening of Gilgit-Skardu Expressway have been started after a delay of seven years, escalating its cost by Rs11 billion. The contract of the 170km road work has been awarded to Frontier Works Organisation (FWO), a commercial wing of the army.
Chief Minister Hafeezur Rehman could be justified in taking the credit for starting work on the long-delayed road.
The finance ministry has initially released Rs8.6 million for work out of the Rs33-billion that was approved by the Executive Committee of National Economic Council (ECNEC) in September 2010 after a memorandum of understanding was signed between Pakistan and China during the visit of former President Asif Zardari to Beijing.
The project was estimated to be completed at a cost of Rs22.154 billion with a foreign component of Rs1938.63 billion in three years but it got delayed for seven years escalating the cost to Rs33 billion.
Successive governments had been making hollow promises to rebuild the on the strategically important and only road that links Baltistan Division with Gilgit and rest of the country, but after coming to power forgot their promises.
Even the contract was awarded for the repair work during the tenure of former Chief Minister Mehdi Shah but it was cancelled sparking strong protests in Baltistan and Islamabad against the PPP-led regional government. This cost the PPP in the 2015 election dearly as the party was routed in Baltistan Division once considered to be its stronghold.
In 2014, an agreement was signed between the two countries for $396m loan to be provided by China Gezhouba Group Company (CGGC). The CGGC had offered engineering procurement and construction-based contract and sought a loan from Exim Bank of China. The NHA sent a revised PC-1 to the Economic Affairs Division to apply for the loan. But the ministry of communication sat on the project.
The National Highway Authority (NHA) approved the revised PC-1 with the escalated cost for widening and up-gradation of the road on March 24, 2017. Subsequently, the project sailed through the Central Development Working Party (CDWP) and ECNEC. It was in 2015 when former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his visit to Gilgit announced to initiate work on the project.
It will have 20 bridges and 150 culverts and 58 causeways. After completion of the widening and remodelling of the project, travel time will be reduced by half to four hours and will not only facilitate the locals, tourists but will also be significant for defence purposes.
Due to the dilapidated condition of the road with sharp turns and narrow passages, fatal accidents have occurred in the past. Because of risky ride on the road majority of the people prefer to travel by air.