Motorways, Mountains And Tourism: What Lies Ahead For The People In North?

Motorways, Mountains And Tourism: What Lies Ahead For The People In North?

Daanish: You know Chitral river turns into Kunar River, once it enters Afghanistan, only to come back to Pakistan, through Kabul River.

Kalasha Tour Guide: It is quite a headstrong river. Sometimes one cannot find dead bodies till way down [stream] by Birkot, Chakansaray along the Kunar River.

Daanish: What?! Bodies? What are you talking about?

Kalash Tour Guide: Oh, you know mostly women who commit suicide by throwing themselves in the river. It’s almost an epidemic here in Chitral, especially upper Chitral.

Where does one begin, when a casual geographical conversation turns to the ghoulish reality of local association of an idyllic river with women’s dead bodies? I suppose one starts with the conversation, as above. ‘Development’ is happening in Swat, Dir and Chitral. It has brought motorways, tunnels, road projects, tourists (your scribe included), tableeghis (evangelical Muslims), non-custom paid (NCP)[smuggled] cars, shopping malls, amusement parks, useless internet, and most intrusively, the security state to monitor the ideological and patriotic health of the populace, and imagined machinations of assorted enemies.

On the face of it, CPEC inspired, mostly empty motorways, e.g., the Swat motorway, lets me get to Chakdarra in Dir from Islamabad in less than 2 hours—it used to take 4. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, and hugely convenient for city slickers like me with air-conditioned cars. One could be excused for imagining oneself in North America or Europe on the world class highway, which I suppose is the point. But on a double take one sees scenes of rural Pakistan and rural communities divided by what an uncle used to call Lahore-Islamabad motorway—divaar-e-cheen (Great Wall of China).  There is little land on the valley floor in Swat. Landholdings are small and the farmers supplement their meagre agricultural production with remittances. Those remittances finance sprawling (ugly) houses, and 2-3 NCP cars.

The motorway is likely to be extended northwards into Swat to finally connect to the Mansehra-Thakot one. I posed to a few of the locals, that being that the motorway takes up about 25 acres of land, how will the meagre agricultural economy survive? One said, that, the motorway projects are to promote national economy at the expense of the local economy. Another said, the motorways are not for our benefit, they’re for someone else”. Indeed, the motorway in Swat will be to depopulate the rural Swat and make Mingora-Saidu Sharif into the hulking behemoth with toxic streams and even more toxic air, paragons of the Pakistani state’s developmental imaginary.

The NCP vehicle phenomena is an integral part of Pakistan’s mountainous frontier’s story. The vehicles are smuggled via the Balochistan border and brought into Malakand division and other border districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, via the motorways. Upon arrival there, they are made semi-legal by being awarded an NCP license plate which allows them to legally ply the roads in those districts alone, and not leave their jurisdiction. The massively corrupt infrastructure required for the vehicles to even reach Malakand division doesn’t need much contemplation. It’s consequences however, do. On the one hand it legitimizes the legal status of the border districts as zones of exception—Pakistani territory, but not really. The contradiction between the state’s assertion that it has uniform territorial sovereignty and the reality of its tapered sovereignty is stark. If it were just cars, one could live with it. But sadly, that qualified, watered down sovereignty also extends to rights and privileges of the citizens living in those zones of exception. The Pakistani state, likes it that way.

But more to the point, mass public transport in the form of buses and even commuter pick ups has gone extinct. There is bumper to bumper traffic all over Swat and Dir, and to much lesser extent Chitral. The congestion, the waste of petrol and the appalling noise and air-pollution are the gifts that the TCP cars have given to Pakistan’s idyllic mountain lands. Even in Chitral city, the bypass fetish passing by the impressive Chitral Scouts mess announces that security state’s development through cat eye (reflector) festooned roads has arrived

In Chitral the Kalashas, especially their women bear the brunt of state’s developmental, Islamist and national security imaginary. Roads, military messes, are to be built, but internet denied in Kalasha villages in the interest of national security and the purity of local culture for the benefit of the tourists. Young, underaged women are routinely targeted for conversion (a polite way of saying abduction wrapped in pious righteousness). Kalasha’s misfortune is that they are fair skinned--like the rest of Chitralis--but their women don’t have the cultural ethos of hiding that. And hence the frustrated imaginary of the Islamist and down country tourists runs wild with their fantasies of sexual trysts with European looking women.

As the Deobandi and more puritanical varieties of Islam make deeper ingress into Chitrali society, women’s freedoms and their bodies are the first victims of it. Little wonder then that for many Chitrali women the only escape is the cold embrace of Chitral/Kunar River.

The security state is everywhere. As a local said, “we are peaceful people. Even our prisons are empty. But the state treats us like criminals. University of Chitral is probably one of the most heavily monitored facility through close circuit TV cameras. Why the state is afraid enough to monitor and control young minds, is a tragi-comedy that young people all over Pakistan know too well. The 5th generation war is in full swing on young bodies.

There are rays of hope. In Swat conversations are happening about where the state’s developmental paradigm is taking the place. New stories are emerging in a poetic or performative idiom, to reclaim Swat’s people’s own capacity to mould their destiny. Issues of heritage, modernity and development are live topics of conversation. The Kalasha people too, have impressive group of young activists who are taking charge of telling their own stories through their own idiom. They refuse to sit back and be cute natives: for the desires of mullahs or tourists; or benign patronage of development practitioners and/or anthropological foreigners. One wishes them well.

Daanish Mustafa is a Professor of Critical Geography, Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research interests include water resources, hazards and development geography.  Email: