Painter and writer Maryam Hussain likes to be introduced as “a true Lahori” who is in love with the city’s history, culture, landscape and heritage.
These days, Hussain is quite actively following the injustices done to the city and its citizens in the name of the Orange Line Metro Train Project, raising her voice at various forums, as part of a network of organisations and citizens of Lahore. The other members of the network include HRCP, Judicial Activism Panel, Institute of Architects Pakistan, Pakistan Environmental Lawyers Association, Pakistan Medical Association, Lok Sujag, Subh-e-Nau, Shehri, Pakistan Urban Resource Center, Chitrkar, Simorgh and The Cecil & Iris Chaudhry Foundation.
Hussain spoke exclusively to TNS on the Orange Line Project. Excerpts follow.
The News on Sunday: The Orange Line Project is in question for multiple reasons. What is the issue that bothers you the most?
Maryam Hussain: I think we must not go for what is less or more important issue, and instead see the project in totality.
First of all, we have an objection that the project has been launched without taking the people into confidence. Nobody knows what tendering process was adopted and who finalised the designs. People were not asked whether or not they needed the mega project and what would be the cost of going ahead with it. Furthermore, different laws that prohibit construction near heritage and activities leading to environmental degradation have been violated.
A public hearing was held but it was just eyewash, and the plan was changed afterwards which is illegal. Selective parts of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) were placed on a website but removed later. Besides, the EIA assessment exercise that has to be done after every revision in the original plan was not carried out.
We are also concerned about the sustainability of these projects and the cost the citizens are paying. For example, the government has been paying Rs4 million as subsidy per day to the Lahore Metro Bus since 2013. The cost of construction was too high. You will be amazed to hear that the cost per kilometre of Lahore Metro was $61.9 million whereas it was $7.5 million for Jakarta MRT constructed using the same technology during almost the same period.
People are not aware of what lies in store for them and need to be informed of what the government is up to. There will be mass displacements, congestion and pollution in the city. There is uncertainty as the government has not shared the structural plans, the final route and reports of surveys done from time to time. The prime objective of the movement launched by our network is to apprise the biggest stakeholders — the citizens of the city — about the infringement on their rights and their seclusion in matters related to urban life.
TNS: The government is trying to address people’s concerns, through bureaucracy. What is your take on it?
MH: The government is creating more confusion by giving irresponsible statements. You will be surprised to know that the Lahore Commissioner has said in a meeting that people will be able to have a better view of historical sites from a height. They are saying there will be hardly any acquisitions but the proposal prepared by China’s North Industries Corporation (Norinco International) — the company involved in the project — talks about the acquisition of 330 kanals of land. The sites which are likely to be affected include the School of Disabled Children, scores of houses, small shops, mosques, shrines including those of Shah Chiragh and Baba Moj Darya, Kapurthala House, Chauburji, Shalamar Gardens and so on. Lands including those of St Andrews Church, Kinnaird School for Girls, Kinnaird College for Girls etc. are also likely to be taken over.
Very few of us know that the maximum height of the elevated corridor is 59 feet which is the height of a six-storey building. The minimum height is 26 feet which is much more than a double-storey structure. As the train will run through high population density areas, starting at Chauburji through Dera Gujran, the privacy of the inmates of houses along the route shall be compromised to a great extent. The population density of this part of Lahore is around 31,000 individuals per sq km. It will also be a security risk as many sensitive spots will be exposed from this much height.
TNS: You had said earlier that the government was not sharing details. How did you get access to this exclusive information?
MH: The information I am sharing with you was not shared with us by the government though we forwarded many requests under the Right To Information (RTI) law 2013. Under this law, they are bound to revert within 12-14 days but we did not receive any intimation despite a lapse of many months. We used our own resources and got hold of the PC1 prepared by Nespak and the proposal submitted by Norinco.
This is not all. The worst is yet to come. Instead of sharing authentic information, the concerned authorities are giving out misleading statements. I know a person who lives in Kapurthala House. He told me that on the 6th of Muharram last, police came to their houses and entered along with a lady police. Some patwaris (revenue department officers) were accompanying them as they wanted to assess the value of different properties in Kapurthala House. This action was taken despite the fact that the government had ruled out land acquisition here and a copy of stay order from the court was affixed on the premises. The male members who were not at home rushed back on hearing about the raid and a clash-like situation was created due to the unwanted attitude of the state machinery.
TNS: We have heard that the government formed a committee of experts and sought advice from them on how to take care of reservations regarding the project. Has this initiative delivered?
MH: Yes, they do form committees but hardly listen to their advice. The example of Nayyar Ali Dada is in front of us who resigned in protest due to the reluctance of the government to listen to the experts’ advice. The acting director general of Punjab archaeology department was transferred when he refused to give a No Objection Certificate (NOC) for construction near heritage sites. The next director general of the department issued NOCs within 48 hours without giving any explanation or details of the surveys of these old buildings.
The Antiquities’ Act 1975 prohibits construction within 200 feet of a heritage site but the bad thing about the law is that the head of the archaeology department can give an exemption. The director general was changed for this very reason.
Another problem is that the bureaucrats come up with statements without having sufficient knowledge of the subject. You will be surprised to know that the Lahore Commissioner said they will dig ground at least six feet away from the wall of St Andrew’s Church. He was not aware of the fact that the foundations of old structures would extend outwards in the form of slopes and digging six feet away from the wall would be like digging straight into the foundation.
TNS: Against this backdrop, what do you think is the way forward?
MH: I would simply say that instead of speeding up the pace of the whole project, it should be stopped where it is and opened for public review. The biggest stakeholders — the people who are most likely to be affected — should be given a say in this matter.
Displacing people for an ambitious project and destruction of religious places are a sheer violation of their constitutional rights such as the right to shelter and the right of worship.
The construction of underground train using tunnel boring machinery is the best solution of this 4,000 years old city. This technology is expensive but not destructive as the one being adopted at the moment. The JICA study on tunnel project had proposed construction of this underground rail system during a period extending from 2006 to 2030, minimising the cost impact spread over a long period.
There is a rail track already around the city which can be revived and used as mass transit route.
Our goal at the moment is to mobilise the people so that they can become a formidable force by the next month when the state machinery tries to get hold of their lands under the exploitative Land Acquisition Act which is a true remnant of the colonial era.