“I feel like I’ve been betrayed by my own country. I chose to stay and serve while my friends left for greener pastures abroad. They told me this day would come, and here I am today. They were right; I’ve lost everything”, says Syed Kareem Haider an affectee of the Orange Line Metro Train.
It was an emotionally disturbing experience sitting down with this Research Analyst at Punjab University, a father of four. Like any other honest person with modest means, Kareem had worked hard to build a house, relying on his savings as well as borrowings. It was only a month and a half ago that the house was completed. When he came to know about the evacuation on a two days notice, it spelled doom what else.
“Evacuate this house, or we will do it for you,” he was told by the authorities. “You will get the money for your house later, but we need the house in 72 hours,” they warned. But Kareem knew it was impossible. Evacuate and go where? Where would he get the money to do so; he already was in debt.
Kareem is not the only one currently trapped in this abyss of helplessness due to the ruthless action by the Lahore Development Authority during its land acquisition drive for the Orange Line Metro Train Project. Hundreds of poor and middle class people of Lahore have had their homes demolished and/or confiscated.
Hundreds of families living in Kapoorthala House Jain Mandir and Parachute Colony Railways have been rendered homeless in the process of this land acquisition, while many at Chauburji had lost their livelihood after their shops were demolished callously.
Over three hundred affectees gathered at the Lahore High Court on Wednesday, awaiting their fate in response to the petition filed against their land being forcefully acquired by LDA without any compensation. Wronged by the very government they had elected to guard their interests, they had little hope they would be heard.
“We have tried everything, from pleading to the authorities to protesting on the roads, but no one seems to be listening. We had no choice but to move the courts”, said Rafique. “Is there any way you can talk to the authorities sahib? Maybe they’ll listen to you,” he appealed.
Some of them had stay orders from the same court against any action by LDA yet their houses were demolished. The court told them to file contempt of court stay for that, which obviously would buy more time for the wrecking-ball-happy establishment.
Architect and environmentalist Imrana Tiwana, who has been the spirit behind this petition to provide relief to the poor, says: “The government has played smart by not opting for the Asian Development Banks offer and going for the Chinese option, because the ADB’s rules dictate that not an inch of work can be initiated before all displaced people are paid, relocated and rehabilitated”, she said. Considering the cost of land acquisition, demolition, legal proceedings and overhead constructions, the argument of underground option being expensive has lost its ground.”
“There are affectees of the Green Line Metro Bus who still have not been paid after knocking on every door and now we have another group of state deprived poor people,” says Tiwana. “We are not against development but transport infrastructure projects should be need-based integrated mobility systems.”
The project has been at the helm of criticism and controversy right from its start after all three neutral members on its planning committee opposed the project in its current form while the iconic architect Nayyar Ali Dada resigned from it.
The LDA Land Acquisition Law, as it stands to date, merits a 24-48 hours notice to people before their property is acquired by force, which is a public policy nightmare in itself. It is pertinent to mention that for the Metro bus projects, LDA had used Article 17 of the act which is only applicable for Emergency Land Acquisition in the state of emergencies like war.
Chief Engineer LDA Israr Saeed, while responding to these problems, says that Article 55 A of the same act was being used this time as opposed to Article 17 during the Green Line Bus. He maintains that LDA had published advertisement in newspaper that if one’s property is in the way of the project, they need to resolve it with the LDA.
“It isn’t a simple and straightforward process of paying the affectees; there are multiple claimants of the same property at places. Residents verses Evacuee Property Trust Board; Railways versus Katchi Abadi dwellers, occupants of government land without any documents and many more,” says Saeed.
“The government has put together the most massive and comprehensive compensation plan to date for this project amounting to Rs 20 billion. We’re not only giving money for the land, we are paying people Structure compensation cost, Business compensation cost and relocation cost for their property,” he explained. “The government is not even paying off the affectees on government rate but has set up a system to pay the on commercial rates, what else can we do right and in accordance with the law?”
As it stands, no matter how socially controversial, economically questionable, ecologically disruptive and aesthetically ungratifying the Orange Line Metro Train project might be, the government seems hell bent on going ahead with it. It is only as question of how much will be compromised for this “greater good”.