For the people of Lahore, already reeling from the myriad ‘mega construction projects’ that have given them traffic jams at best and also entailed environmental hazards, there is more to come. The government of Punjab has announced the launch of another big road project, pompously called the Elevated Expressway.
It is said to be a 4-lane elevated dual carriageway that will directly link points at Jail Road and Main Boulevard, Gulberg, using the existing route of Cantonment Drain, to M2 Motorway at the Babu Sabu Interchange.
At Main Boulevard, the expressway shall start close to the Mcdonald’s restaurant and follow the trail of the drain, all the way to the Shama Chowk, and from there on to the LOS near Shama Chowk on Ferozepur Road. From there it shall go along the covered part of the drain, cross Multan Road near Gulshan Ravi and reach the Babu Sabu Interchange via Bund Road.
The rationale given by the government for attempting yet another (mis)adventure is that it will improve the aesthetic view of the area, reduce travel time significantly, bring down the operational costs of vehicles and load on major roads of the city, enhance road safety due to decreased psychological stress of the road users, and so on.
Interestingly, it is not a recently announced project. It has been in the news since 2014. Back then, it was challenged in the court and the notice for land acquisition was taken back because the government was told that it had planned things in haste and not spelt out its policy with regard to land acquisition. Later, the Punjab government issued a new and revised notification on land acquisition, got an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) done, followed by a public hearing, and started paying compensation to those who would be displaced under the project.
But all this was going on without making much noise, until the government placed a newspaper advert, on February 28, 2017, calling pre-qualification bids from prospective contractors. This has clearly given a warning signal to the opponents of the project who believe it is no more on paper and it is going to become a reality like the other mega projects.
The Elevated Expressway project, which is estimated to cost around Rs25 billion, is tipped to leave 563 families displaced, uproot 1,715 fully grown trees — including bakain, jaman, mango, orange, simbel, kikar, sheesham, shreen, and eucalyptus, cause loss of business to owners and employees of at least 60 shops and commercial centres that will be demolished, shifting of electricity, telephone poles and other infrastructure. The environmental hazards are in addition to this.
The LDA Market, situated along the bank of the drain, where it intersects the Lahore Canal near Cricket House, Jail Road, is also expected to become a casualty of the project. Muhammad Asghar, a trader who shares a portion of a shop here is extremely disturbed. He says the people doing business here had shifted to the place from the areas around the Services Hospital in 1992 when Jail Road was widened. “Now, these people are once again being uprooted, without anyone realising how difficult it is to set up shop a new.”
According to Asghar, the people can’t seem to figure out why there is a need for the project in the first place because they can reach the entry points from different parts of the city rather easily.
While the government sources have the standard answers to the question — increased accessibility, reduced distances, and eased load on traffic — Dr Ajaz Anwar of Lahore Conservation Society (LCS) comes down hard on the planners. He says, “The declared purpose may be whatever, the fact is that the government wants to link these parts with the lands across the Ravi where it wants to develop a riverfront project.
“This improved access will increase the marketability of the project and fetch dividends for the government functionaries.”
Dr Anwar also says the affectees of the Ravi Waterfront Project are in thousands, and approximately 1.5 lac acres of highly fertile land will be acquired for the purpose. “The people, most of who are farmers, are worried as to where they will move to, together with their cattle.
“Once deprived of their agricultural land, they won’t be sure what they can do for a living.”
He also speaks of a large group of inhabitants of the area that have gathered under the banner of ‘Ravi Kisaan Mahaz’ and are protesting against acquisition of their lands.
Dr Anwar is convinced that these two projects are linked and cannot be reviewed and discussed in isolation. He thinks if the riverfront project gets through as planned, the people of Lahore shall be deprived of a prime source of milk and dairy products, and the vegetables grown here.
Raheemul Haq, an academic and conservationist, strongly believes Lahore is facing “the fate of Delhi which has become a concrete block, devoid of any green spaces. Only the central city seems livable as it is preserved to an extent and the metro track there is underground.”
He says he had the chance to attend a public hearing about the Expressway project, back in 2015, where a large number of potential stakeholders were also present. “They all rejected the project,” he asserts.
“A group of people from Gulberg, who also attended the hearing, termed the project as illegal, as it wasn’t part of the city’s master plan. Another objection raised by them was that constructing a corridor on a drain that had been declared a green space was sheer violation of the land use rules.”
On the other hand, the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) spokesman insists that all objections levelled by the individuals, groups and organisations about the project have been addressed. “So, it is irrelevant to bring them up over and over.”
The spokesman also rejects the notion that the court stopped the implementation of the project, “In fact, the objection was about the hasty acquisition plan that could have compromised the interests of the affectees.
“There would hardly be a person who’d deny the utility and need for the expressway. All of us are witness to endless queues of vehicles and long waits getting into the city or leaving it via Motorway. The expressway shall reduce the load.”
He also says the basic premise of the critics is that hefty amounts are being spent on building roads and infrastructure and far less on other important sectors. “This is not the case. Ongoing construction work is for all to see but the development in other sectors is not.”
Raheemul Haq has no faith in role of LDA in making decisions about development projects and then executing them. “There is no regulator, and if we believe that the LDA is the one, it should not be executing projects as it falls in the category of conflict of interests.”
Haq also rubbishes the claim that expressways, signal-free roads etc reduce traffic load, “Traffic management has a lot to do with the overall urban development of the city. If you create urban sprawl with empty spaces between scarcely populated localities, scores of miles away from the city centre the need of motorised vehicles will definitely rise.
“Where is the local government that should have been brought on board, rather in control of the project instead of the provincial government under its executive head. Ideally, Lord Mayor of Lahore shall hold discussions with the citizens, urban planners, architects, members of local councils etc and engage in future planning of Lahore. But here the provincial government has not given him any space to work.”
In his defence, the LDA spokesman says that any issues will be short-lived, as it happened in the case of the M2 and Metro Bus corridor constructions. “The same people who opposed these projects are reaping the benefits.
“We all know the difference between travelling by the motorway and by the GT Road, don’t we?”