On the cold Thursday morning, the narrow path leading to the historic Maharaja Building near Baba Mauj Darya Shrine on Fane Road was closed for vehicles.
There were two trolleys and a number of mules already present there to carry the debris falling from the multi-storey building. One could see labourers perched on different points and swinging hammers in a somewhat synchronised manner. It appeared that they were in a hurry and had been tasked to demolish the remaining structure of the building the same day. Around a dozen labourers could be seen loading used bricks in trolleys in a mechanical fashion and without even looking at the people who had inhabited the place till only a few days ago. The latter had been asked to vacate the place on the dot.
While these people watched the scene from a safe distance, Shabana Akram, a middle-aged woman, stood right in the midst of the place where the bricks were falling. She screamed curses at the contractor and his workers as well as the rulers who were bent upon dislocating her from her house that she had made with her hard-earned money.
Despite repeated warnings, she refused to vacate the place and vowed to challenge the “usurpers.” The government offered nominal compensation to the inhabitants but she refused to accept it.
This is the place the government wants to acquire in connection with the construction of the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT). Called Maharaja Building, the structure has long been inhabited by settlers from India after the Partition. In Bhutto’s tenure, these people were given the right to ownership of their dwellings.
It was in 2014 that the government had decided to acquire this place for OLMT construction but due to a stay order by the Lahore High Court (LHC) these people were able to buy time. However, a bad news for them is that the stay has been vacated and the district and provincial administrations have rushed to the place to clear it without delay.
Teacher and activist Maryam Hussain speaks up for the people who were settled in around 40 rooms of the Maharaja Building and recalls the scene on Monday where she could see LDA officials accompanied by 120 policemen ordering people to immediately vacate the place. She describes how they were issued warnings that if they did not move out their belongings would be thrown out and demolition started while they were inside.
On that very night, most of the people moved out and slept on roadsides or vendor carts, inside rickshaws parked there, and many of them kept awake. They spent the whole night thinking about their next destination and the challenges they would face in case of expulsion, which was imminent.
The official stance in this context is that the inhabitants have been paid compensation and they have been enjoying temporary relief due to the stay order. Hussain contests this and says the people were intimidated by the government machinery and asked to accept Rs1 million per household as compensation. “In case they refused they were told they would be ousted without even paid the amount.
“Just imagine where they will go. Do you think a family will be able to buy a house with this money anywhere else in the city?”
Her point is that these people have been living as a community for ages and that too in the city centre. A large number of the bread earners would earn Rs300-500 per day and their families would feed on what was offered by devotees at the Mauj Darya shrine.
“Why not house for house instead of a paltry sum?” Hussain asks, terming the SCP decision “unfortunate for these people.”
Forced displacement is a big issue, and the scene at Maharaja Building quite explains how painful it is. However, there are several other issues that have come to the fore during the hearing and after the announcement of the said judgment.
The main dispute has been about the likely impact of the proposed OLMT project on various heritage sites and special premises as defined in the Antiquities Act, 1975 and the Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance and the NOCs granted by the concerned departments to undertake the OLMT project, even at close distance of a heritage site.
An objection was also raised that the OLMT-related construction near these sites would block the view at these points, something that was not given much consideration in the decision.
Responding to this, architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz says, “It does not need special expertise to understand this point. Even a person with minimum intelligence would understand it.”
In the post-decision scenario, he believes, it will be difficult for the government to follow the instructions given by the SCP that also talks about the appointment of a committee of experts and a project engineer to monitor the progress of the project.
“Ideally, if these bodies and individuals perform their duties with responsibility and independence, they can stop work on the project anytime if they find something is wrong. This can happen if they feel the prescribed precautionary measures are not being taken or harm is likely to be inflicted on a heritage site but one cannot say this with conviction that they will act like this,” he adds.
Mumtaz is not at all satisfied with the suggestion of painting viaducts and OLMT stations near heritage sites in a way that they would appear to be a part of the original structures. “This will worsen the situation. The obstruction will continue to be an eyesore regardless of how beautifully you paint it. The decorative motifs will not be able to reverse the damage.”
While Maryam Hussain is clear on going for a review of the decision, Mumtaz is still contemplating and discussing the option with a team of lawyers. He thinks that more focus shall be on complying with the SCP suggestions than on expecting a reversal or revision of the decisions.
On the other hand, Hussain insists there are legal points to contest. For example, she says, even the Section 23 of The Antiquities Act, 1975 has been ignored in the decision that prohibits posting bills, neon signs, poles, electricity or telephone cables etc near immovable antique sites. “Heritage has common ownership and it is the people and the society that have the right to decide anything related to them. Unfortunately, here these considerations are extinct.”
Azhar Siddique Advocate, who was a counsel in the case, announces they will go for a review within a week because they are waiting for the certified copy of the decision. He points out that within days of the announcement of the judgement the government has started construction work which is tantamount to contempt of court. As per the decision, work cannot be started till the time the prescribed committee and experts are there.
Siddique shares they will also challenge the distances from protected sides, as mentioned in the decision, because these are not accurate and need to be verified from the court. He says the government’s claim that the LHC stay order has resulted in delay is also wrong because it was limited to a combined distance of half a kilometer only. “Have they completed the remaining construction work and built all the proposed on-ground and under-ground stations? Is there any stay at these places as well?”
Furthermore, he says that the government claims underground construction shall escalate the project cost which is not true. “Who is asking them to construct the whole corridor underground? Making Laskhmi-Chauburji sector underground will serve the purpose.”
He also terms the excuse that there are underground water pipes that discourage underground construction as baseless. All they need to go is 50 feet deep and there is no paper submitted in the court about the existence of such pipes at this depth.