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Not the Lahore I fell in love with

It is difficult to say that the cultural capital has become a better city for the majority of its population, though it has been taking better care of its privileged elite

Not the Lahore I fell in love with
Thoughtless construction of fly-overs and metro tracks has destroyed the landscape.

The Lahore of today is not the city I fell in love with in 1948 and which taught me almost everything I have learnt about life and the trials of the under-privileged throughout the three tumultuous decades — 50s, 60s and 70s — before the philistines completed their occupation of the beloved settlement.

The city that was growing by 14 square kilometres per year a decade ago and is now devouring the farmlands along its fringes much more voraciously has certainly acquired a few attractive patches. The trees and hedges lining Khayaban-i-Jinnah — from Johar Town to Raiwind Road — not only have a soothing effect on the eye, they also refresh the mind. Many other roads and lanes have been beautified with flower beds and neatly trimmed hedges. Mercifully, the Race Course Park has been saved, though the Polo Association still occupies a part of it, and the Model Town Park has so far escaped the ravages planned by commercial entrepreneurs. The airport park is coming up well though one wishes it could serve a large population.

And, nobody can ignore the Walled City Lahore Authority (WCLA) which has done some good things, like hanging flower pots on city walls and repairing some gates, but which also has a habit of mocking at conservationists and pro-people urban planners.

On the whole, it is difficult to say that Lahore has become a better city for the majority of its population though it has been taking better care of its privileged elite.

When I came to Lahore, Samanabad was under construction and one could see that it was no improvement on Model Town (that colony is yet to be surpassed as a marvel of urban planning) and at best it was an extension of the Krishen Nagar model. Within a few years we had Gulberg, which initially was called ‘rishwat nagar’, as it accommodated the first generation of the post-partition nouveau riche class. Now Gulberg has been left behind in every respect by DHA and Bahria Town.

Thus, Lahore is no longer a single city; it is a string of cities. Perhaps, this could not be helped and Lahore had to follow the pattern noticed in metropolitan settlements the world over. But Lahore is different from big cities in the world in that its growth is premised on the questionable assumption that there is no shortage of land on its periphery and housing colonies can offer huge plots for houses and avenues and boulevards.

A thick mass of concrete has blocked the front view of the Secretariat, and the perspective of such heritage buildings as the Badshahi Mosque and the Government College has been spoiled.

For the old Lahoris, the charm and the conveniences of a compact city are gone. They can recall the days when one could walk to the places of work and entertainment to Pak Tea House and all colleges (except the FC College) and the university and newspaper offices. You needed transport only if you wanted to go to Moghalpura/Pakistan Mint, or Model Town/Gulab Devi Hospital/Walton, or the film studios beyond the Yateem Khana, or RA Bazar. The centres of interest were within the reach of people with limited means.

Recollection of the old, compact Lahore means much more than an indulgence in nostalgia. The expansion of the city has meant that distances between residences and workplaces and other places of interest have increased. And, this quite worked adversely for the poor as distances between their residence and work place have enormously increased.

Pakistan religiously follows the urban model in which the working class must he kept on the fringe of the town; a worker must cover a longer distance to reach his workplace than is covered by a secretary while driving from his bungalow to the secretariat. Not only that, distances between citizen and citizen have increased. The spirit of fellow-feeling has declined. The bond that held all Lahoris together has been superseded by clannish loyalties to the DHA or Gulshan-i-Iqbal.

But now the major issue in Lahore is the ruthless grind under the cover of pseudo development.

Thoughtless construction of fly-overs and metro tracks has destroyed the landscape. A thick mass of concrete has blocked the front view of the Secretariat, and the perspective of such heritage buildings as the Badshahi Mosque and the Government College has been spoiled. And, the process of vandalism is in full swing.

In utter violation of the 18th amendment the LDA has expropriated to itself the powers of local government and has undertaken a dozen or so mega projects at a total cost of Rs31,038,048 million. These include such outlandish projects as the Ravi River-front development project (which will gobble up the old fruit orchards and deprive hundreds of thousands of people of their livelihood), and an elevated expressway to help some privileged dandies to save a few minutes of travel from Gulberg to the Motorway. With a fraction of the money too being spent on these bizarre schemes, scores of public schools and health facilities could be improved.

For the old Lahoris, the charm and the conveniences of a compact city are gone.

For the old Lahoris, the charm and the conveniences of a compact city are gone.

Although the formality of public hearing on some of these projects is sometimes gone through the contempt with which conservationists, environmentalists and defenders of citizens’ rights are treated has few parallels in the world.

For instance, while hearing a writ petition against the so called development work relating to the walled city of Lahore, the Lahore High Court appointed as amicus curiae the outstanding architect, urban planner and president of Lahore Conservation Society, Kamil Khan Mumtaz, and his report is an eye-opener, that is for all those who are not afraid of opening their eyes. He accused the ‘developers’ of ignoring “issues that are deep-rooted in generic realities and dynamics of demography, economics and politics including conflicts of interest between income and occupational groups, power structures and social relations.”

He found that some of the Walled City development brought about “profound transformations in social structures and relationships including polarisation between super rich non-residents and very poor residents; dramatic loss/destruction of the heritage of the Walled City; physical and cultural exclusion and alienation of residents from the state structures and institutions; and economic and political marginalisation and impoverishment of residents.”

In any civilised society, the foregoing criticism of brainless development would have compelled the custodians of power to think of the rights of the city and its people. But we find the voices of saner counsel drowned in a chorus of professionals who are driven by their lust for fees and commission and the avaricious contractors.

The unkindest cut of all came when the apex court allowed the widening of the canal road in “public interest.” It’s a pity that the society holds the interest of an over-pampered elite higher than the right of a large population to a pollution-free environment, and the city’s need for green belts (lungs to let the city breathe properly).

The developers have at their back not only big purses (who can hire the most privileged counsel) but also a political authority that has no time to listen to reason. There are only a few takers of the cause of Lahore as a city that could hold the balance between the neo-rich and the underprivileged.

I.A. Rehman

I. A. Rehman
The author is a senior columnist and Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

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