A city belongs to its citizens — the people who live there. Do those living in Lahore have a say in, for instance, the development projects being carried out here? What do they think and say about the city? These are some of the questions an ongoing exhibition titled ‘Gumnam Shehri’ (also, ‘Invisible Citizens’) looks at. The idea is to invoke a sense of ownership in the shaping of your city.
Organised by a group of urbanists, under the banner of Nigraan-e-Lahore, the exhibition highlights the thoughts and feelings of the ghettoised communities and/or individuals, the problems and neglect they face.
It also sheds light on the issues with the disadvantaged, the sidelined and less fortunate, albeit in a creative manner — the Alhamra Art Gallery, which is the venue for the exhibit, is strewn with collages of pictures and quotes.
It involved a series of workshops with certain marginalised groups of society, with the aim to provide them with a platform where they could give vent to their thoughts and aspirations for the city they breathe in.
Going around, you will come across many disabled people — the blind, and the deaf and mute. At the Government Institute for the Visually Impaired, Sheranwala Gate, the students’ biggest concern for the city was road safety. They found crossing the road a tough challenge.
The blind students also demanded a separate footpath. There is a need to reflect on how to make the roads safe for them. A quote says, “Cars have increased so much that crossing the road has become scary.”
There is a need to design roads infrastructure so that the person on wheel chair, for instance, or one who is visually impaired can access the public bus, go to the bank on his own, and also, if he/she wants to, should be able to visit a park, cross the road safely and with dignity.
In the absence of these facilities, the disabled shy away from the public sphere and would not develop a deep sense of belonging to the city. Long lines of barbed wire, set up at public spaces, symbolise the impediments in the way of the disadvantaged.
A picture at the exhibition captures an evening at Yaku, a tea house on Temple Road which is frequented by the deaf-and-mute as well as eunuchs. There are lots of colours in the picture.
There is a huge poster which reads, “Khamoshi Khuda ki zaban hai” (silence is the language of God). Yet another says, “Everybody has claims on Lahore.”
Another highlight of the exhibition remains the people at Data Darbar, a place which no visitor leaves hungry. A long line of women and children are shown in the picture of the shrine. A quote goes: “I have not been in my home as much as I have been here.”
Next, there is a picture collage in which craftswomen who make baskets and toys with straw have set up their workstation under the shade of a tree. They wish “the place remains safe from the government.”
Another quote on display is from people at the shrine: “A city is happy where your heart is at peace.” In other words, people are happy when they are not threatened with displacement.
The voices of people at Mauj Darya’s shrine are expressed in the following words: “There should be generosity of spirit no matter how old you are.” (For the information of the readers, Mauj Darya shrine is tipped to lose its courtyard to the Orange Line route.)
Old people are more prominent in the exhibition. The Lahore of yore — a place where the statue of the queen once stood at Chairing Cross, an old picture of The Mall, an antique convertible car, a cycle rickshaw packed to capacity, and the memory of going to Hazoori Bagh every Sunday — comes alive in black & white. The caption goes, “Old people are respectable citizens. Their views are important.”
Another states, “The older generation gave sacrifices so that the new generation finds the way. The government should make a committee in which it should include old people in the decision making.”
Among the five groups of students who displayed their research work and proposals as part of the ‘Invisible Citizens’ competition, the one that chose the old people as their subject was from Beaconhouse National University (BNU). Their work reflected sensitivity.
Bali Memorial Trust in Shadman, a home for elderly women, is a concentration of stories from remotest corners of life. For some, Lahore exists as a beautiful memory shared with a loving spouse or family. A quote here: “A woman has no value in Pakistan.”
A poster shows a bunch of homeless men, sitting under the shade of a tree, with their meagre belongings. “This place is our paradise,” says the poster which also points to a thoughtless felling of trees by the government in order to accommodate its “mega development projects.”
Sanitary workers — ones who collect garbage, clean gutters — are another group living on the margins. They sweep the city streets as early as 6 in the morning. They are invisible, dispossessed, and paid between Rs3500-4500 a month. “What do the poor know about development? Lahore is developing but not for the poor.”
A project by a group of students was on scavengers, of whom nearly 70 per cent are homeless. They had designed a mobile home and a cycle was attached to it.
There was a students’ project on transgenders — another commendable effort to help this poor lot earn livelihood in a respectable manner. They had designed stalls and kiosks for them.
Gravediggers attracted attention of a group of students who presented a plan to change the landscape of Miani Sahib graveyard to help improve the grave diggers’ lives.
There was another group that designed a mobile home for Dholis; they called them Dholchis. The idea to give them a home was beautiful, to say the least.
There was a quote on display, “Cities have the capacity to provide something for everybody, only because and only when they are created by everyone.”
Lahore has literally transformed in recent years and further changes are expected in near future. One hopes the government shall reflect on being inclusive in the future.
It took Nigraan-e-Lahore over three months to collect the views of the marginalised people in the city. It’s up to the government to pay heed to these voices.