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Pindi may be central to national politics but Rawalpindi isn’t as central to the provincial planners in Lahore. The city has no industrial base of its own and its outskirts are unsuitable for large-scale agriculture, but its educational and health facilities have long attracted individuals and families from other regions. Rawalpindi has also been in much demand due to its proximity to Islamabad and its cheaper housing alternatives for federal government and private sector employees.

Under pressure to house more and more people and provide civic amenities, the city is inevitably shifting its center of gravity, from the trail along the Murree Road, to the growing urban sprawl protruding towards Rawat alongside the GT Road. Sensing demand, several private housing societies have cropped up towards the city’s southeastern limits. But RDA, the town planner, has to regularly warn the public that many housing schemes are built without NOCs and are therefore illegal.

The previous provincial government under the PML-N focused more on improving the city’s transportation infrastructure. It is true that by making new roads and building several flyovers in the congested zones helped alleviate traffic woes. The star project was the Metro Bus Service, which is used by thousands of people every day. But the real mega project that could transform the city as a whole kept waiting in the wings.

Expected to cost over Rs70 billion, the Rawalpindi Ring Road Project is being cast as be a game-changer for the city’s problems. This 50km+ long highway project, with several intersections for inner-city traffic, will connect Rawat in the Southeast of Rawalpindi with Tarnol (M2 motorway) near the New Islamabad Airport. This project is expected to alleviate the problems faced by Rawalpindi residents in several ways.

First, inter-city traffic, including heavy traffic, will completely avoid the Islamabad Expressway and be on its way to the North once the ring road is fully operational. Second, some of the people who have to travel to Islamabad every day for livelihoods or studies will have a fast-track alternative for their daily commute that is currently marred by massive jams in rush hours across all major arteries linking the twin cities.

Third, under the master plan, the ring road project will be allocated enough space to relocate a lot of businesses from major city districts to the peripheries. Currently, haphazard expansion of business areas, large fruit and vegetable markets, grain markets, small industrial units, furniture and marble markets, and transport terminals create both traffic congestion and pollution for residents and commuters.

And fourth, but most critical, the project may allow for a planned expansion of Rawalpindi towards its West. Besides creating an economic zone and business and trade centers, the project will also provide land use for housing societies, apartments and flats, academic institutions and recreation facilities. Officials have given a new timeline: 2022. But don’t count on it. The provincial government needs to seriously expedite this mega project that can help Pindi achieve some semblance of planned expansion.