Fortress Peshawar: Road rage as security checkpoints and protests snarl traffic

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Pakistani security guards stand alert in the vehicle during the patrolling . Photo by UPI Next/Matiullah Achakzai

Peshawar: Ahmad Zeb has to be at the office at 8 am in the morning. A doctor at the Khyber Teaching Hospital, one of the three tertiary care health facilities of Peshawar, he needs to be there well in time before the morning queues of patients start lining up at the hospital.
“If I leave home at 7.30 am, I can make it conveniently to the hospital at the desired time, but the travel is long, tortuous and tedious, and at times uncertain,” he tells News Lens during interlude between the changing of shifts. “I have to cross several security check-posts where it takes between 10 to 30 minutes for clearance.”

With more and more security check points springing up and Peshawar turning into a virtual fortress due to growing insecurity in the wake of terrorist attacks, traffic often gets snarled on the roads as traffic gets stuck at the security posts.
However, it is not just security posts that hinder Ahmad Zeb’s passage to the hospital, a sudden appearance of a few dozen people on the road, chanting slogans to draw the authorities’ attention to a civic or political issue, might block the road.

“It may take several hours for the road to clear up in case of protests,” says Ahmad Zeb. “Driving on the roads in Peshawar is an agony as the traffic situation has become insufferable. You can see frustration on the faces of commuters and drivers caused by the ill-controlled and bizarre traffic system.”

 

People News Lens talked to seem to agree on the point that traffic management in Peshawar has worsened over the last few years, emerging as a major administrative challenge that requires a prompt and holistic approach to keep the wheels moving on Peshawar roads.

Wahid Mehmood, a senior traffic police official, told News Lens that unregulated and ill-planned urbanization, inadequate road infrastructure, security check posts and encroachments are the major reasons for the traffic mess in the city.

“People have stopped asking about the reason for traffic jams as they know that the system has totally broken down,” says Muhammad Ashfaq, a teacher at a private university. He says Peshawarites witness long queues of vehicles on all major roads of the city daily.

Ashfaq has seen ambulances stranded on the roads a number of times, their sirens blaring, unable to get to the hospital to ensure quick treatment for the patients.

The traffic police officer agrees that traffic congestion has become a recurring problem in the city. However, there are a number of reasons why traffic remains clogged on the roads, he explains.

“The city’s population has doubled in the last 15 years,” says Mehmood. “According to the urban planning unit, the population of walled city of Peshawar was 2,165,480 in 2001, compared to the current estimate of 6,872,318.”

In addition, he says, around 4.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) from different tribal agencies have also shifted to the city in the wake of military operations against militants there.

Mehmood, who is in-charge of the city traffic police, said in 2001 there was not a single security check-post in Peshawar while presently there are 116 security check-posts. More than 20 roads have become off-limits, diverting the flow of traffic to other roads that end up clogged due to excess traffic.

“These [check] posts are one of the main hindrances in smooth flow of traffic,” says Mehmood.

Similarly, the volume of traffic on the roads has increased with increase in population over the last 15 years.

“In 2001 the number of vehicles plying in the city was 115,789 while currently its 353, 490,” said Mehmood.
A study on Peshawar traffic published in the research journal South Asian Studies in 2012 reveals that during the period of 1998 to 2009, the ratio of increase in number of vehicles to that of road-network expansion is 126.4 per cent is 0.85 per cent.
Fifteen years ago Peshawar had only four bus stand. Today the number exceeds 20. The number of rickshaw taxis have spiraled and the city has seen a proportional growth in taxi-stands.

Mehmood says every day nearly 9,000 buses, 5,700 minibuses, 9,396 wagons and coaches and at least 40,000 rickshaws ply the roads of Peshawar.

Absence of parking lots in Peshawar is also a main hurdle to streamlining the traffic. “People park their vehicles on roadsides in busy squares and shopping hubs which result in traffic jams,” says Mehmood.

Said Alam Khan, a Peshawar based journalist and analyst, says bringing life to a standstill is much easier in Peshawar than other cities. “Just block the main road from the border to the city at one point— say the Rahman Baba Square or the Suray Pull— and you will have the traffic snarled through the entire city. This has happened many times in recent months.”

Taimur Kamal, a civil society activist, said that the protests by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik Insaf (PTI) in Islamabad in recent months has encouraged political groups, trade unions and activists to paralyze life by blocking the main artery of Peshawar to put pressure on the government to accept their demands.

“Whether the PTI sit-ins in the Islamabad have achieved its goals or not, but it has certainly turned the roads in traffic and commuters in Peshawar hostage to protests,” says Kamal.

Senior lawyer and former general secretary of the Peshawar High Court Bar Association (PHCBA) Aminur Rahman told News Lens that under the Motor Vehicles Ordinance 1965 and Motor Vehicles Rules 1969, blocking of roads and preventing smooth flow of traffic is a crime.

“Under section 133 of Pakistan Penal Code, blocking of roads, whether by law-enforcing authorities or by protesters, is a criminal offense,” added Rahman.

In a bid to solve the traffic problems and respond to road-hazards, the city traffic authorities have launched a traffic helpline. In case of a traffic related problem including traffic blockades, accidents, traffic jams and diversion of traffic, people can call 1915 for information and guidance.

“The helpline is active 24-7 and the traffic police will respond rapidly in case of receiving any complaint or observation through closed circuit television cameras installed at main traffic junctions,” says Mehmood.

The traffic police has sent a proposal to the provincial government suggesting construction of under-passes at five different locations in the city.

The proposal also include widening of roads as well as linking them with the ring-road around the city which will ease the traffic burden on the main arteries inside the city. One of the suggestion is to allocate a specific place for peoples’ protests.

“People should not be allowed to block any of the city roads,” said Mehmood. “Also, anyone who wants to protest must seek prior permission from the city administration and inform the traffic police.”

The proposal also seeks installation of scanners at check-posts to detect ammunition. According to Mehmood, it would substitute physical checking of vehicles for weapons and ensure smooth flow of traffic.

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