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Saturday November 27, 2021

Govt’s Ring Road ‘scam’ is a scandal in itself

May 13, 2021

ISLAMABAD: The story of the Rawalpindi ring road ‘scandal’, as publicised by the government, has some serious flaws in it, displays a huge distortion of facts and also involves a political angle that casts light on the blame-game within the PTI.

Strangely, the government is leaking selected excerpts of an inquiry report that is actually a minority report as two of the three-member inquiry committee have not signed it. Instead, two members submitted their own reports which do not agree with what the head of the inquiry team had come up with.

Informed sources say that the minority report, which is owned by the government, is basically based on several conjectures and shifts the blame mainly on the former Commissioner Rawalpindi. In fact, all the decisions regarding the realignment of the road were discussed in great detail and taken by the relevant forums in Lahore.

The report, it has been alleged, is backed by advisor to the PM Barrister Shahzad Akbar. When contacted, however, he told The News that he has nothing whatsoever to do with the entire matter. The media is also being fed, informally, against another influential special assistant to the PM Zulfi Bukhari and a federal minister from Rawalpindi division, Ghulam Sarwar Khan. The special assistant is indirectly associated with Sangjani land, which belongs to his maternal relatives. However, neither the special assistant nor any of his close blood relatives has any landholding there. When approached, the special assistant told The News that he had no knowledge of even the ring road’s route.

The Sangjani land has been owned by the family of senior bureaucrat Dr Tauqir Shah for centuries. Despite his close relationship, the PM’s special assistant does not have good relations with the Shah family of Sangjani. The entire land of Sector C-17 of CDA falls in village Sangjani. It is also confirmed that a proposal to connect the ring road with Margalla avenue at sector C-17 was proposed by the CDA which gave an NOC for it.

Although the name of Dr Tauqir Shah makes the alleged scandal seem quite juicy, there is neither any housing society on his family’s land nor would they stand to benefit from the ring road. This is because their land would be acquired on much less than even the DC rate, which is far lower than the market price of the land. Zulfi Bukhari agrees that even though he does not have good relations with Tauqir Shah, the family has been unfairly dragged into the scandal.

The PM’s adviser Shahzad Akbar, who is generally blamed for being the real actor behind the controversial report, not only denied any involvement in the case but agreed that the special assistant to the PM and a federal minister are also unnecessarily being dragged into the case. Regarding the Shah family of Sangjani, he said that their land ownership is very old.

There are also reports that some highly influential real estate developers and influential housing schemes --which were benefitting from the previous alignment of the road --are upset with the new design and have a role in allegedly trying to sabotage the ring road project just before it was to be executed.

It is also interesting to note that the minority report, owned by the government, is authored by the Commissioner Rawalpindi -- the same officer who was removed on the ECP’s order for his involvement in the Daska by-poll rigging. After being removed from Gujranwala, the officer was appointed as Commissioner Rawalpindi replacing Capt (R) Mehmood, who interestingly enjoyed a very good reputation within the civilian bureaucracy.

While the incumbent Commissioner in his minority report mainly held his predecessor responsible for the change in the alignment of the ring road, the other two members of the inquiry committee had an altogether different story to share.

Deputy Commissioner Rawalpindi, who was also a member of the committee but was later removed as well, in his report responded point-wise to the terms of reference referred to in the inquiry committee.

In 2017, NESPAK had drafted a reasonably good alignment for the R3. How then did the advertised alignment emerge with its Attock Loop 1 and Paswal Zigzagi? The DC and member of the inquiry committee noted that the alignment proposed by NESPAK in 2017 along with its complete technical & financial proposal was never submitted to the public private partnership (PPP) cell and also not approved by any competent forum. PPP cell reminders to the Rawalpindi Development Authority from May 2017 to April 2018 are available on record whereby it was requested to submit project proposals. However, this never materialised. It would be mere conjecture to assume that the alignment proposed by the consultant NESPAK in 2017 was the most technically, financially and economically viable alignment.

The official record also shows that the proposal for the execution of the ring road project on a loan basis from the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) was initiated by the C&W Department through a summary to the chief minister Punjab which was approved on March 27, 2018. Through the same summary, the ring road was transferred back to the RDA on the directions of the chief minister.

The services of M/S Zeerak Int’l and EGC (JV) were procured to carry out the feasibility study and detailed designs on September 16, 2019 as per the requirements of the AIIB. The scope of inception/preliminary reports included a traffic count O/D studies and traffic projections. Based on these, the consultant was to submit a preliminary report for approval by the client which was to contain various proposals / alternates for the alignment without compromising on the economy, safety and serviceability of the road. The approval of the preliminary report was to form the basis for detailed engineering and other studies.

The consultant submitted the inception/preliminary report where they gave three options from the N-5 to the M-2 with geographical and other details and requested certain approvals. These were going to form the basis of detailed engineering and other studies. These route options were presented in the first project steering committee of the Rawalpindi ring road held on November 19, 2019 under the chairmanship of the chairman planning and development board Punjab in the conference room of the office of the commissioner Rawalpindi Division. Dr Salman Shah. The advisor to the chief minister Punjab on planning and finance also attended the meeting as a special invitee. The main decisions taken there include the finalisation of the alignment option from Radio Station (N-5) to Murat Village (M-2). This means that NESPAK’s proposed 2017 alignment from Banth to Thalian was not approved by the PSC.

Since the ring road was terminating at the M-2 as per the above decisions, the RDA along with the consultants held meetings with the NHA to obtain an NOC for the alignment. However, during the meeting, the NHA expressed several reservations on the proposed alignment. First of all, the NHA showed concern that by terminating the ring road on the M-2, the traffic volume of about 33,000 vehicles per day from GT Road would land up on the motorway causing long queues on toll plazas and traffic congestion on the motorway. The issue of double toll was also highlighted whereby a commuter using the ring road was going to have to pay toll first at the ring road and then at the motorway in order to get back to the GT Road. The NHA also pointed out that by terminating the ring road on the M-2, both heavy and light traffic had to go back into Islamabad to use the N-80 which was going to cause traffic chaos within the capital territory.

The NHA also suggested that a complete N-5 to N-5 solution should be considered as the route in question was merely a partial bypass. In the light of the discussion with the NHA, the consultants were asked to propose an alignment for the ring road beyond the M-2 until the N-5.

Since there was hardly any open space between the M-2 motorway and Islamabad International Airport due to the development of several housing societies and the airport funnel area, the consultants proposed an alignment that skirted around the airport. The potential benefits of this alignment, as quoted by the consultants, were an alternative and direct route to the airport for the citizens of Rawalpindi and improved road connectivity for air cargo landing and taking off from Islamabad International Airport.

The consultants proposed three options to extend the ring road from Murat to the GT Road. During the first project coordination committee (PCC), these options were presented to the committee and the Member CDA was of the view that that end point of the ring road should be Sangjani N-5 as it links up with the Margalla Avenue project being constructed by the CDA and will ensure completion of a complete ring road loop.

The consultant also endorsed the point of view of member CDA to terminate the ring road at Sangjani on the N-5 due to its integration with the Margalla Avenue project. Initially, the alignment was proposed to terminate in the grid pattern of the CDA but upon site inspection, it transpired that a grid station existed in violation of the grid pattern and therefore a grid could not be used.

At the same time, the proposed alignment was shared with the SPD to get an NOC from it. However, the SPD showed concern over the proposed alignment as it was running too close to certain SPD installations. It was suggested by the SPD to use the Hakla-DI Khan CPEC route as it was the most optimal solution that they had earlier negotiated with the NHA. Thus, the NHA was once again approached to allow the use of the CPEC route for the ring road by adding two lanes on each side. The consultants also pointed out that the land acquisition cost between the M-1 and Sangjani was quite exorbitant and the Paswal road, being the property of the Punjab Government, offered a cost-effective area to use for the alignment of the ring road. This would also benefit the Punjab government which was also facing a shortage of funds.

According to the report, the previous alignment was merely a partial bypass. A bypass always starts off from one point at a road and connects to another point on the same road. The 2017 alignment only addressed part of the traffic problem of Rawalpindi city and not the whole. In the previous alignment, a commuter had to travel on three different roads and had to pay tolls to three different agencies-- first to the ring road, then to the FWO, having the concessionaire agreement on the M-2, and finally to the NHA on the N-80.

It was after a laborious discussion with the NHA and CDA that the advertised alignment with its Attock loop had emerged. The only considerations for using the Paswal road for the advertised alignment were to avoid high land acquisition costs and connect the ring road on the GT Road at the same point where the Margalla Avenue was connecting with it as per the plans of the CDA. It was also meant to complete the natural circle of the Ring Road. It must also be noted here that NESPAK, which had given the previous alignment in 2017, once again carried out the option analysis of the new alignment in 2021 and found the current alignment to be most suitable for the construction of the Rawalpindi ring road given the objectives of the project. In fact, it is NESPAK that has finalised the advertised alignment.

The new alignment had been shared at all appropriate levels to keep all stakeholders and a competent forum onboard. From the project steering committee to the level of P&D to the RDA board and PPP policy and monitoring board, the new alignment was endorsed and no objections were ever raised in view of it being the shortest route for connecting commercial and commuter traffic to the airport, DI Khan, other parts of KP, north / central Punjab and Kashmir. The defined objectives of the project, such as future growth, special economic zones, planned economic growth and land value capture were not at all possible on the previous alignment.

Regarding the allegation that the addition of the Attock loop, which was not part of the proposal by NESPAK in 2017, is prima facie indicative of possible rent-seeking by both government functionaries at the helm of affairs in Rawalpindi as well as real estate players operating in the area, the DC report said that as discussed above the Attock loop in the alignment has emerged out of necessity and not for any other consideration. The potential benefits of this alignment as quoted by the consultants have been outlined earlier. Thus, the Attock loop was added not as a choice but as a necessity arising out of the geographical, financial and technical compulsions. The surrounding of this loop along the M-2, M-1 and N-80 is heavily populated by numerous societies.

The ring road is not merely a road project but was also planned as an economic corridor along which planned economic development was to take place. It was also envisaged to decongest the twin cities by shifting the main urban traffic generators, such as fruit and vegetable markets and bus and truck terminals, along the ring road. In this regard, the industrial zone and aerotropolis zone were also proposed along the Attock loop. The proposal for these economic zones was also shared in the PSC meetings as well as the PRC and PPP policy & monitoring board meetings. The Attock loop had been planned on purely technical and justified grounds outlined by the consultants and in no way can be ascribed to any real estate players or any other party.

Even in the previous limited scope alignment, there were huge benefits available to DHA, Bahria Town and other neighboring societies. No matter which alignment is used, be it the 2017 one or the advertised one, benefits would be available to the neighbouring societies, land owners and occupants.

Furthermore, the alignment with the Attock loop was discussed in the second and third project steering committee meeting held on December 25, 2018 and June 24, 2020 headed by Chairman P&D Board, P&D Department, Punjab as well as in the third & fourth PPP policy and monitoring board meeting held on July 3, 2020 and September 4, 2021 chaired by the chief minister Punjab in the shape of the unsolicited proposal of M/s FWO. Even in the fourth PPP policy and monitoring board meeting, the RDA was directed to prepare solicited proposals based on the alignment of unsolicited proposals and the objectives of the project were further reiterated and defined to create an economic impact as well as the capture of land value. The project review committee of the PPP policy and monitoring board headed by Dr Salman Shah, Advisor to the Chief Minister on Economic Affairs and P&D, also discussed the proposed alignment in the seventh and eighth meeting held on 2 August 20 and 22, 2020 and it was agreed that the project needs to be more than just a road project and should cater for the development needs of the city for the next 20 years besides creating economic activity. It was also desired that proper town planning of the city should be done and development of new economic zones, hubs and centres should also be accounted for. The advertised/current alignment was presented to and approved by PRC in the 13th meeting held on February 19, 2021 and the project proposal was approved on behalf of the PPP P&M board. In addition to this, on various occasions and on an individual and collective level, public representatives were appraised by the PMU and RDA regarding the proposed alignment.

The current alignment was also approved by the RDA governing body and acquisition on the same alignment was twice considered / approved by the PDWP. In all the above meetings, the current alignment was never objected to by any stakeholders or any forum.

In addition to the above, a number of NOCs were obtained from various agencies on the ring road. As far as the alignment is concerned, PPP projects are focused upon improving the financial viability and the current route was considered most viable by the consultants.

Therefore, the report said, it is quite clear from the above facts that the advertised alignment has taken more than one-year of deliberations with different stakeholders to arrive at a consensus. It was made on purely technical and professional grounds and no rent-seeking or real estate interests were ever allowed to influence the proceedings.

On the issue that the M1 to N5 (GT road) alignment was revised multiple times finally leading to the Paswal zigzag -- which again on the surface seems indicative of rent-seeking by some powerful rent seeking syndicate --the report said no zigzag alignment between the M1 to N-5 has been adopted. It was designed to maintain the design speed of 120 km per hour. The proposed alignment between the M-1 and N-5 is mostly passing on the Paswal road is the old route connecting N-5 Sangjani to Fatehjang and the ownership of this road rests with the Punjab Government. In order to cater for the 200 feet ROW, this state land was utilised to save expensive land acquisition as the land values in the said area are very high. The alignment proposed by M/s Zeeruk was minutely reviewed by the consultant NESPAK to avoid settlements coming up in the ROW and some improvements have also been made in the geometric design to reduce unnecessary curves. NESPAK designed a three lane each side, 120 km per hour road straight from the M-1 interchange to the Margalla Highway/N-5. Connectivity points on the M-1 and N-5 were never changed throughout the study but were instead facilitated with adequate connections to the Margalla road planned by the CDA.

To the question that the RDA was authorized to exercise its powers in the Attock district by the Commissioner while such powers could only be conferred by the Board of Revenue, the report said that the executing agency of this project is the RDA. Therefore, the LAC of the RDA was allowed to exercise the power of LAC in Attock by the Commissioner in light of section 3 (c) of the Land Acquisition Act 1894. “The expression ‘Collector’ means the Collector of a district appointed under the Punjab Land Revenue Act, 1967 (XVII of 1967) and includes any officer specially appointed by the Board of Revenue or the Commissioner “.

Regarding questions of a conflict of interest about the issuance of an NOC by the CAA to a housing society, Nova City -- allegedly extending itself to the funnel area/structure-free zone -- the report said that this issue has no relevance to the ring road alignment issue and the matter relates to the jurisdiction and territory of the Civil Aviation Authority and the tehsil Fatehjang administration. Neither did the PMU/RDA consult the management of Nova City nor did the CAA and tehsil Fatehjang administration share any information.