Saturday, March 7, 2015
Daily Times Editorial March 8, 2015
Arbitrary style Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif seems a man in an inexplicable hurry. Otherwise it is difficult to understand why he pushes his favourite projects without regard to the law or citizens’ rights. Proof of this assertion is available in the Lahore High Court’s (LHC’s) Justice Mansoor Ali Shah’s stoppage of the signal-free corridor project from Qartaba Chowk, Jail Road to Liberty Chowk on the Main Boulevard Gulberg in Lahore. The LHC has not only seen fit to halt all work on the project until a final decision on the matter, it has ordered the implementing agency, the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), to remove all the heavy construction machinery deployed at the site and take no further steps regarding the project except for purposes of facilitating traffic flow. These measures were ordered to be implemented by Saturday evening latest. Work has halted as a result, but the machinery is still in place. The Environment Protection Department (EPD) was ordered to ensure the LHC’s instructions were complied with, and in the event of any violation, the CCPO Lahore was ordered to render full assistance to this end. In an earlier hearing in February, the court had accepted a petitioner’s plea and stopped the massive cutting of trees for the project. In this present hearing, both the LDA and the EPD were put on the mat on the question of why the former had not carried out and got approval for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the latter failed to take action when the project was started without such approval. Now belatedly, and under pressure from the close questioning by the court, the Punjab authorities say a public hearing, which is mandatory under the Punjab Environmental Protection Act, whose section 12 provides that no such project can be started without an approved EIA, will be held on March 16. The petitioners not only asked the LHC to issue contempt notices to the LDA for continuing its tree cutting activity despite the earlier order, they also pointed to the impact the seven-mile corridor was likely to have on the city and its environment and the arbitrary manner in which the LDA was proceeding in the matter. The petitioners argued that the corridor would pose serious health hazards. There were hospitals located along the route, and four pedestrian bridges along its path to facilitate vehicular traffic would cause hardship to patients, noise and other pollution, and have a major deleterious environmental impact. The Punjab authorities, the petitioner further stated, intend to cut not only hundreds of old trees along the route but also destroy the green belts on either side of the Main Boulevard, Gulberg. Lahore is already suffering from increasing pollution and these steps would make the lives of citizens even more miserable. The Punjab government wanted to acquire people’s private property for construction of the corridor, but no legal recourse was being adopted for this. In this manner, citizens’ property and human rights were being blatantly violated. The LHC, after ordering the stoppage of all work until the next hearing, directed the project director LDA and the EPD secretary to submit their replies in writing as to why they acted in this arbitrary and illegal manner. While the court’s intervention can only be welcomed because it may help save the beautiful city of gardens called Lahore from the megalomaniacal ambitions of the Punjab government, it bears reflection that this is not the first time there has been an ‘attack’ on Lahore’s traditional beauty and the lives and rights of its citizens. The case of the Lahore Heritage Park, so named by no less than the Supreme Court (SC), saw this obsession with widening and constructing roads threatening the pristine character of the Canal Road. Had the SC not taken a dim view of the project and its justifications trotted out by the Punjab government, Lahoris may have been deprived of their prized waterway and its green environment forever. That still has not stopped the Punjab government from carrying out road building activities along this Lahore Heritage Park, actions that conceivably violate the letter and sprit of the SC’s directions. What all this proves is that this Punjab government does not give a fig for the law, citizens’ rights or Lahoris love of the traditional character of their city. Lahore, like other cities in Pakistan, has never fully recovered from the onslaught of private vehicles that inundated its arteries as a result of former Musharraf prime minister Shaukat Aziz’s opening the floodgates of leasing. Widening and constructing roads since then has not, and logically cannot, match the exponential growth of private vehicles on the roads. A mass transit system is the irreducible need in today’s times for any big city. Unfortunately, the Metro Bus system just does not cut it for being arguably the most primitive, inefficient, and unsustainable option because of the subsidy of Rs 100 per ride. We can only pray that better sense prevails and the helter-skelter rush by the Punjab government to privilege private vehicle owners (a small minority) over the bulk of citizens is halted in its tracks. The judiciary has partnered aware citizens in reining in the proclivities of the Punjab authorities. But it will require constant vigilance and activism by concerned citizens to halt this destructive juggernaut.