For most of the 20th century, the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan lacked good tarmac roads. Its impoverished residents often cursed the bone-jarring journeys they were forced to take on dilapidated roads and dirt tracks in the vast region, which borders Iran and Afghanistan.
But over the past two decades, the construction of new infrastructure across the province is causing alarming numbers of road accidents due to narrow highways, poor safety, speeding traffic, disregard for traffic laws, and few emergency services.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and injured in traffic accidents across Balochistan since the turn of the century. The number far surpasses the death toll of terrorist attacks in the region reeling from a separatist insurgency and attacks by Islamist militants.
Ghazi Khan, a farmer, knows the danger of Balochistan’s roads. Last month, he lost his 16-year-old son in a head-on collision between his motorcycle and a sedan. Khan says his son and his two friends riding with him fell on the asphalt after their motorbike hit a car. They were then crushed by a speeding flatbed truck.
“He left home happy and was on his way to break the Ramadan fast with his friends,” Khan recalled of his son’s last hours. “But his blood-soaked body was soon brought back home,” he added. “His mother and I are still in deep shock.”
In the past 18 months alone, there have been more than 12,600 traffic accidents in Balochistan. According to the Medical Emergency Response Centers Balochistan, a provincial organization that responds to traffic accidents, more than 275 people were killed while more than 16,000 were injured in reported accidents on Balochistan’s major highways since October 2019. The figure suggests that on average the region witnesses more than 20 traffic accidents a day.
In contrast, more than 300 people were killed and 600 others injured in more than 260 incidents of terrorism during the same period, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a research group tracking conflicts across the region.
But Adnan Amir, a journalist in Balochistan, did a longer-term comparison in 2018. He says five times more people were killed and injured in road accidents than terrorism between 2006 and 2015, when a Baluch nationalist insurgency and attacks by Islamist groups peaked in the region. Using government and independent figures, he concluded that 488 people were killed in 31 suicide bomb attacks in the period in Balochistan while some 2,238 people died in 3,797 accidents. Similarly, while more than 1,000 were wounded from terrorist violence, more than 5,600 people were injured in road accidents.
“The standard narrative in our [national] media is that Balochistan is reeling from the effects of terrorism, which is true,” he told Radio Mashaal. “But no one was paying attention to how many people our highways were killing,” he added. “For the first time, I highlighted this issue in my report.
'Grief, Suffering, And Tears'
The dramatic rise in traffic accidents in Balochistan has made it into the local political discourse. Opposition politicians point to the issue as crisis made worse because of government neglect. “If you appraise the situation in this province honestly, you will not find anything but grief, suffering, and tears,” Sana Ullah Baloch, an opposition MP, told the provincial assembly in March after scores were killed in traffic accidents. “Every day, I come to this office thinking we will be making laws and crafting strategies for a prosperous future for Balochistan, but all we see is wailing and protests outside this assembly.”
Many blame the poor condition of the region’s nearly 45,000 kilometers of highways and roads. Its five major highways connect the provincial capital, Quetta, to major towns and cities in the region and elsewhere in the country. All are undivided highways where speeding vehicles from opposite sides often collide with deadly consequences.
Compared to the national average of nearly 15 meters width for major highways, the major roads in Balochistan are only 7.5 meters wide.
“These narrow highways are the scene of frequent accidents that kill passengers, drivers, and even pedestrians,” Nasir Shahwani, spokesman for the Transport Action Committee, a union of transport owners, told Radio Mashaal, adding the region’s main road are more frequently known as killer highways. “The increasing population means there’s more and more traffic on the roads.”
Most highways and roads across Balochistan have little speed control and few passengers or drivers use seatbelts, which contributes to the high number of casualties in accidents in vehicles most often lacking airbags.
Some of the taxis that ferry passengers from Quetta to Chaman, some 125 kilometers away, proudly display stickers insinuating that the journey could bring sudden death. “Kafan ya Chaman” -- Pashto for “Burial shroud or Chaman” -- reads one. “Kor ya Gor,” which translates as “Make it to your house or your grave,” reads another.
After completing the journey recently, Sayed Muhammad, a resident of Quetta, told Radio Mashaal that he was terrified. “I was clutching my heart for the whole ride and kept pleading with the driver to slow down,” he said.
But Mir Ahmad, a taxi driver along the route, says he and other drivers follow the traffic laws and often drive below 80 kilometers per hour.
“There is no doubt some drivers are reckless and like driving fast,” he told Radio Mashaal. “But the major reason for accidents is the narrow highways. If those could be widened, we would see a major reduction in accidents.”
A Rocky Road
Liaqat Shahwani, a spokesman for the provincial government, told Radio Mashaal that one major reason for the poor conditions in the province is the lack of attention the province gets from the National Highway Authority, a federal organization in charge of building, running, and maintaining highways.
“We are trying to address all aspects of this issue, but it can’t all happen in a day,” he said. “We have begun widening the roads and building a dual carriageway and motorways.”
Bashir Bangulzai, the provincial transport secretary, or the most senior government bureaucrat in charge of regulating transport, says they are monitoring the speed of buses, which are frequently involved in accidents with high numbers of casualties. He says they have installed cameras and speed trackers in 160 of the more than 360 buses that drive passengers between Quetta and Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and capital of the southern Sindh Province nearly 700 kilometers away.
“From a control room in Quetta, we check the speed of these buses and call their drivers if they start to go too fast,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We often call them to warn them against speeding and order them to stop if they don’t heed the warning.”
Nasir Shahwani acknowledged that speeding and reckless driving are a major issue but says drivers often face pressure from passengers to shorten the travel time.
“There are many check posts along the Quetta-Karachi highway where buses are held for a long time for security checks, so passengers then pressure drivers to drive fast and make up time,” he said.
Aziz Ahmad Jamali, the head of Medical Emergency Response Centers Balochistan, says that after reading Amir’s 2018 report he ordered planning emergency rescue centers along major highways where paramedics can quickly respond to accidents. Since the adoption of his plan two years ago, the government has established 14 centers while six more are near completion. He claimed that a call to the special rescue line 1122 guarantees rescuers will make it to the site of an accident in less than an hour.
“During the past 17 months, we have helped 14,000 injured,” Jamali noted. “Overall, we have achieved a sixfold decrease in the number of casualties from the accidents.”