Monday, August 29, 2016

Business Recorder Column Aug 30, 2016

Lahore’s ruin at Shahbaz Sharif’s hands Rashed Rahman The Lahore High Court (LHC) has struck a blow for the preservation of the Punjab capital’s heritage and against the incremental tendency of the province’s PML-N government, and especially Chief Minister (CM) Shahbaz Sharif’s penchant for big infrastructure projects that have proved politically and electorally beneficial to the rulers at the expense of the historical character, culture and way of life of Lahore. I refer of course to the LHC’s verdict on Lahore’s Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) project. Now in his third term as Punjab CM, Shahbaz Sharif has not outgrown his personal political agendas on display during his earlier tenures. In fact ‘success’ on this score in earlier tenures has if anything given the CM even more confidence and belief that he can do, and get away with, anything that pleases him. In his first, interrupted tenure of 1997-99, Shahbaz gave early warning of his tendencies. Lahore’s traditionally verdant boulevards, roads and streets were suddenly treated as though they were located in a Gulf desert kingdom. Dwarf palms, a necessity in cities like Dubai because of climate, water scarcity, etc, suddenly sprang up to line our main boulevards. The incongruity did not strike Shahbaz Sharif as odd. Also during this tenure, Shahbaz acquired a black mark as a CM inclined to give our brutal police carte blanche to conduct so-called ‘encounters’ (actually extra-judicial killings). The cases lodged against him on this score withered on the barren vine of our dysfunctional judicial system, and nothing has been heard of them since. In his second tenure, 2008-13, all the disturbing tendencies of CM Shahbaz Sharif as a ruler recklessly riding roughshod over the city and its people’s wishes and interests were in evidence with a vengeance. First and foremost, Shahbaz made no effort to reverse the long standing practice by successive rulers of concentrating development resources on Lahore to the detriment of the rest of Punjab, particularly its southern reaches and rural areas. Having inherited Musharraf’s prime (earlier finance) minister Shaukat Aziz’s opening up vehicle lease-purchase, which at its height brought 1,500 new cars/vehicles onto Lahore’s roads per month, Shahbaz sought the solution to the city’s growing traffic gridlock by widening roads. This meant the cutting of hundreds of trees along the main thoroughfares. Green, flourishing, shade and oxygen-giving trees were replaced by poor cousin shrubs and faux decoration that grated on the citizen’s aesthetic. In the case of one main thoroughfare, the Canal Road, burdened with the exponential growth of traffic serving the new colonies and businesses sprouting like mushrooms to the city’s south, a legal battle similar to the one now waged against the OLMT project by civil society groups and concerned citizens first promised a glimmer of hope that the wholesale massacre of trees to allow widening of the road would be halted, only to end in bitter disappointment when the Supreme Court allowed continuation on the basis of the doctrine of balance of convenience (saving the fait accompli of sunk capital investment). Whether the LHC’s OLMT verdict ordering a halt to construction within 200 feet of 11 heritage sites along the route will suffer a similar fate when the Punjab government implements its declared intent to appeal the LHC verdict, only time will tell. Without intending to cross the line of possible contempt of court even before the appeal has been lodged, one can say that the reasoning of the LHC verdict and the references to various national and international laws and conventions on the preservation of heritage leave little room to demur from the excellent verdict of the LHC. Consider that the Antiquities Act, 1975 and UNESCO conventions to which Pakistan is a signatory, clearly forbid any construction within 200 feet of protected heritage sites. In the case of the OLMT, the route passes perilously close to and threatens the preservation of 11 such sites, examples of which are: seven feet from Lakshmi Building, 33 feet from Shalimar Gardens (whose system of water fountains/cisterns was ruined by being paved over by a road by CM Shahbaz Sharif in an earlier tenure) and 39 feet from Chauburji (the Punjab government tried to justify the last by arguing it was improving the visibility of the monument from the windows of passing OLMT trains!). The OLMT route has uprooted thousands of low income families from their homes and businesses. Meagre compensation, which cannot replace these properties at current market rates, has only been available to those who could produce property ownership documents. Those missing out on even the crumbs from the government’s compensation table were low income denizens unable to produce satisfactory documents because either the record was lost in the mists of time or many victims had lived in these properties after migrating during the turmoil and horror of partition. How bitter that those who sought a new homeland in 1947 were turfed out onto the roads 69 years later. The petition before the LHC did not argue the uncompensated or inadequately compensated victims’ case, although concerned citizens connected to the heritage petition were vocal in their advocacy of justice for the people arbitrarily ground into the dust under the wheels of the OLMT juggernaut. The purpose behind rushing ahead pell mell with the OLMT, obliterating all obstacles in its path, is not hard to discern. As with the earlier Metro Bus project, the CM’s eye is fixed on the future election. The Metro Bus in the CM’s perception won him the 2013 elections. It has never caused even a crease on his forehead that for the money spent on the Metro Bus, which requires a considerable subsidy in perpetuity for each passenger ride, some 6-8,000 buses could have been introduced onto Lahore’s roads in an integrated mass transit plan that would have had the following benefits: not depriving the city of precious road space (as the Metro Bus lanes have done), coverage of public transport needs citywide, and avoidance of the heavy subsidy required throughout its life for the Metro Bus. The original plan for the OLMT, framed during Chaudhry Pervez Elahi’s chief ministership under the Musharraf regime, was an underground train to be financed by JICA (Japan’s aid agency) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). It would have taken longer, but avoided the damage done to Lahore’s heritage, damage that persuaded the LHC to call a halt to the rape of the 11 identified heritage sites under threat. Merely because it was a political rival’s brainchild, the underground aspect was rejected, which led to the withdrawal of JICA and the ADB. Shahbaz had done the same thing to the Gowalmandi Food Street created by Pervez Elahi and which had become an international tourist attraction. The Gowalmandi Food Street did have some health and sanitation issues, but instead of improving things on that front, the whole project was sacrificed on the altar of political enmity. The loss for Gowalmandi has proved profitable for the Lahore Fort area’s new, flourishing Food Street, of course with the CM’s blessings. The OLMT not only suffered a similar fate, it was deliberately taken above ground so it would be ‘visible’ and visibly help Shahbaz’s electoral prospects in 2018. Of such stuff are our rulers made. Political expediency and interests trump public welfare (ironically, in the name of the poor travelling public) and waste huge resources because of the brutish manner in which the CM has attempted to impose another fait accompli on Lahore’s troubled citizens, proud of the traditions, culture, way of life, and last but certainly not least, their city’s rich heritage and history. Shahbaz sahib needs to read the excellent LHC judgment, educate himself in these matters, and learn the wisdom that there are more things under the heavens than mere electoral vote counts.

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