Rawalpindi Ring Road Project: Are We at a Dead End?

Key Points

  • Rawalpindi Ring Road Project is a crucial developmental project focused on improving the traffic flow in the region.
  • The project was initiated in 1991 but delayed for decades.
  • Initially, the ring road was planned as a 38km long structure extending from Grand Trunk Road (GT Road) to Thalian near Motorway.
  • A corruption scandal regarding unapproved changes to the alignment of the project has been brought forward.
  • The flagship project has not witnessed significant progress in decades and an inquiry probe is delaying it further.
  • The project is being through the Public-Private Partnership mode and the inquiry is warding off private investors.
  • The government is considering moving forward with the old alignment to develop the infrastructure.
  • No provisions for re-alignment of the project have been made in the Annual Development Program (ADP).
  • Th revised PC-1 will be expensive.
  • The incumbent has wrongly pinned the blame entirely on housing societies which is detrimental for the growth of the real estate industry.
  • Former Rawalpindi Commissioner and land acquisition collector have been arrested by the Anti-Corruption Establishment (ACE) for their involvement in the scandal.

Urbanization is a driving factor in the 21st Century that indicates the socio-economic development of a region. Traffic and unmaintained roads could significantly hinder the growth of a region by causing unnecessary delays and warding off investment opportunities.

The twin cities of Pakistan – Rawalpindi and Islamabad, have long been known as opposites in terms of urban planning and traffic management. Traffic surveys conducted to check the road congestion and management in the city have concluded that there has been a 300% rise in traffic in the last 5 years. Spike in traffic jams and urbanization highlights the absence of adequate infrastructure and the need for the development of new roads to cater to the increasing transportation demands in Rawalpindi.

Need for the Rawalpindi Ring Road Project

The Rawalpindi Ring Road project is a brilliant plan that has witnessed excruciatingly slow growth. Initiated by the former Chief Minister of Punjab in 1991, the RRR project was put forward to facilitate the movement of vehicles between the twin cities and to provide better connectivity. The primary objective of the mega-development project, initially spanning 38 km, was to provide an outlet for excessive traffic and to serve as an economic corridor by expediting the movement of containers and vehicles. The initial plan proposed by the Rawalpindi Development Authority (RDA) involved the establishment of the road structure extending from Grand Trunk Road (GT Road) to Thalian near Motorway. However, the work on detailed planning and construction was not undertaken by any government for more than a decade.

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The first feasibility study for the project was carried out in 2008 and focused on constructing a road connecting Channi Sher Alam to Fatehjang near the New Islamabad Airport.

In 2017, the former government made progress on the RRR by directing NESPAK to conduct a fresh feasibility study and preliminary design. Nonetheless, the project was reformed after the 2018 elections as efforts were made to begin construction. Being a part of Punjab’s Vision 2025, the incumbent began taking strides to achieve its goals and improve the existing condition of Rawalpindi’s infrastructure.

But, like Quaid-e-Azam said in his address to the constituent assembly; bribery and corruption are poison and our situation is dire regarding the two. Unfortunately, our development is slow more than 7 years after independence and the RRR is no exception. Neglect, corruption, improper planning, and lack of understanding of the procedural framework are the reasons why the paramount project has been delayed for 2 decades.

Alignment, Inquiry and the Government’s Role

 After the work began on the project, news of unauthorized Rawalpindi ring road alignment surfaced and Prime Minister Imran Khan immediately halted the bidding process which was to start in March 2021 and called for an investigation. An official inquiry report was formulated and stated that there has been an ‘illegal’ change in the alignment of the Rawalpindi ring road project as the length of the project was altered from 35 – 40km to 65km after the feasibility tests conducted by Zeeruk International. Consequently, large amounts of funds were released.

Significant changes to the existing Rawalpindi Ring Road map were suggested by the Zeeruk International. It was suggested the 38km ring road be extended beyond its original route to comply with the NHA standards and for technical improvements. The ring road was aligned to include Paswal Zig Zag and Attock loop.

The matter of concern was that the changes were made without any official approval of the Chief Minister Punjab (Official Report) regarding the alignment and that the alignment was done for rent-seeking purposes and to benefit influential political personalities and private housing societies.

The following concerning findings have been reported:

  • Housing societies have generated more than RS 130 billion through property deals in the last 4 years.
  • The government has also already paid Rs.2.3 billion to landowners for land acquisition.
  • More than 8000 kanals of land has been acquired and compensation has been paid for nearly half of it. Attempts to retrieve the compensation will result in a legal battle that could continue for years and derail the project.

Rawalpindi Ring Road Map

The map of the Rawalpindi ring road (RRR) is not finalized yet.

What Lies Ahead for the Rawalpindi Ring Road Project

Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan in an address to the media stated that the RRR is projected to begin its developments by August of 2021 but the accuracy of this statement is questionable. A senior person at RDA stated that it is unlikely for the project to make progress in the fiscal year 2021-2022 and that its future is uncertain. However, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed claimed that the RDA has finished designing the project and that it will be completed within a year. The differing statements of the authorities involved in RRR show the future of the project is uncertain and that there is no foolproof plan in place to proceed with it.

At the beginning of 2021, the project’s jurisdiction was shifted to the Lahore Ring Road Authority due to the incapacity of RDA to carry out the project. The initial PC-I that spanned 38km has been sent to the Punjab Government for final approval amid the investigation. While the government is trying to formulate a plan to complete the project within the initial budget set for it, the current situation is an indicator that the revised PC-I will be more expensive. This poses a problem since the government has not made any provisions for the re-alignment of the project route in the Annual Development Program. This is an issue since the ADP includes the allocated budgets, financial projections, and scheme-based portfolios of developmental projects over a period of 3 years. Furthermore, an RDA member has questioned the authenticity of the re-aligned project’s approval thus far since no consultancy firm has been hired for development planning.

An Insight into the RRR Problem

 The government has pinned the blame of the scandal majorly on housing societies which is unwise on part of the government since bureaucrats have played the highest role in changing the alignment without approval as proven by the official inquiry report and arrest of the former Rawalpindi commissioner and the land acquisition collector by the (Anti-Corruption Establishment (ACE). Additionally, it is natural for real estate investors to invest in areas linked to major government development projects. Directly blaming businessmen for things in which they have no direct authority at all only deteriorate the overall investment climate of the country. And while the former Commissioner Rawalpindi said the alignment was altered on technical grounds, the report claims he was unsuccessful in following the procedural framework which ultimately led to the scandal.

In my opinion, while a probe into the matter was essential to check if any parties involved are guilty of corruption, so it can be completed seamlessly; it is also imperative that the inquiry process is finished as soon as possible to avoid warding off potential investors and any further delays. Till the completion of the inquiry and the trial, it would be difficult for the government to attract private investors which is a serious concern since the project is being financed by the Private Public Partnership (PPP) mode and the project relies on private investors for completion.

The RRR is a flagship project of the PTI government that can facilitate the movement of more than 3 million residents that reside in the twin cities. But if the parties responsible do not pick up their pace, the situation will only get worse and a half-cooked project by the time of the next elections will serve as a souvenir of the incompetence of the government and not its progress. Any progress in the project is unlikely until the investigation is concluded. The investigation is currently being spearheaded by the ACE and RDA has turned in all the relevant records required for it.

While the government made efforts to complete the project, it is clear that the inquiry and scandal have put the project on the backburner once again. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was to fund the RRR. AIIB approved a loan of $1 billion for three major projects, including $400 million for the Rawalpindi Ring Road (RRR). However, the current government preferred financing the project through the PPP mode which has led to numerous issues involving real estate investors as proven by the scandal. It has now been reported that AIIB has delisted RRR from its financing list, leaving the task of gathering funds entirely at the mercy of investors and the government. This clearly shows that opening up an inquiry and prominently highlighting it in the media has delayed the crucial RRR project further.

The fact that no infrastructural developments have been made in the Rawalpindi district since the establishment of Metro raises valid fears regarding the project. The Leh Expressway proposed to provide an outlet for traffic congestion at Murree Road is still in the works and the allocation of inadequate funds has led experts to predict that the project will take more than 3 years to complete. Over the years, numerous traffic surveys have been conducted in the district to monitor traffic congestion. However, the suggestions have not been implemented although the government’s tenure is coming to an end.

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The aforementioned issues point to one thing, the incumbent government has not been instrumental in finishing important infrastructure projects in Rawalpindi and parts of Punjab despite their efforts. Corruption, countless delays, lack of resources and improper management have slowed the progress of not only infrastructural development, but national socio-economic development as a whole. The government needs to conclude the inquiry soon to prevent it from impacting the project any further. It is also necessary for everyone involved in the project to follow the proper legal framework while conducting business to ensure the project is completed as soon as possible.

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