Saturday, December 9, 2017

Business Recorder Editorial Dec 9, 2017

SC’s OLMT green light Twenty two months after the Lahore High Court (LHC) stayed the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) project in Lahore on the ground that it threatened 11 heritage sites along its route, the Supreme Court (SC) has set aside the LHC’s verdict on the 27 kilometers long $ 1.6 billion project. Predictably, Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif was overjoyed but seems to have been affected by the smog in Lahore in directing his vitriol against the PTI for delaying the project through the courts although it was civil society that was the main protagonist in defence of our heritage. The SC delivered a 4-1 majority verdict, Justice Maqbool Baqar dissenting. It has set 31 conditions for the satisfactory implementation of the project in the light of the SC’s judgement. These can broadly be considered post- and future pre-facto directions. The post-facto part seems to rely on the balance of convenience principle, taking into account sunk costs to date when 79 percent of the civil works, 50 percent of the tracks, and the grey structures of the stations above ground have been completed. However, this leaning on balance of convenience has conveniently ignored the provisions of the Antiquities Act 1975 and the Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance 1985 forbidding any construction within 200 feet of any heritage site. The short order announced by the SC provides for reduced speed of trains near these heritage sites to reduce vibration as recommended time and again by the Directorate General Archeology (DGA). The DGA has been directed to conduct a fresh Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA), preferably with the assistance of UNESCO. It may be recalled that UNESCO has been raising the alarm, especially with regard to world heritage site Shalimar Gardens, but its requests to allow its delegation to visit Lahore have been denied 10 times through denial of visas. The SC suggests expert organisations such as the British NGO English Heritage could also be consulted. The SC has bound the Punjab government, NESPAK, the Punjab Mass Transit Authority and LDA to ensure no monument is damaged during excavation, construction and after completion, by vibration. It has ordered that an independent, experienced conservation engineer be engaged to monitor the project during construction and in the operating phase. He is required to submit monthly reports to the advisory committee to the DGA on how to ensure adherence to the technical requirements to preserve and conserve antiquities and protected premises. There will be a two week experimental run after completion to monitor and clear vibration levels before commercial operations commence. State-of-the-art vibration measuring equipment will be permanently installed in and around the heritage sites. Care must be taken that excavation does not affect the structures and foundations of these sites. So far so good, but one shudders at the SC direction to stabilise and strengthen these structures if the stabilisation/strengthening of Sheikhupura Fort some years ago is kept in mind, where grey cement buttressing walls were built in violent contrast with the brick structure. Apart from installing accelerometers, velocity transducers, noise detectors and vibration measuring equipment near the heritage sites, the Punjab government is to ensure implementation of additional mitigation and remedial measures recommended in the vibration analysis reports by NESPAK and the HIA reports of Drs Uppal and Rogers, experts earlier appointed by the SC. If, the SC order says, any adverse impact is detected during excavation, construction, execution, work must stop immediately in the interests of protection and conservation. A hotline for citizens to report any damage or deterioration is to be set up. The Shalimar Gardens Hydraulic Tank, damaged beyond repair when the GT Road was being paved many years ago, must be restored ‘as much as possible’. A ‘camouflage’ wall and buffer zone are to be created to save Shalimar Gardens’ beauty from being marred by the ugly housing that has sprung up over the years, encroaching well into the protected 200 foot buffer laid down in the law. So much for the SC’s post-facto pronouncements. For future projects that directly, indirectly or incidentally impact heritage sites, the SC has ordered that wide publicity be given to such undertakings at least six months before commencement, public hearings be held and the requisite NOCs, licences, approvals, permissions be obtained before beginning. The Punjab government has been bound to create a revolving Antiquities and Special Premises Fund worth Rs 100 million to be replenished on a yearly basis to monitor, renovate, reconstruct heritage sites. (Horrors! The Noor Jehan tomb is being ‘reconstructed’ for the sixth time. Does it still qualify as a heritage site on the basis that the crypt underground alone is intact?) A committee of experts led by a retired judge of the SC is to oversee implementation of the SC’s judgement for one year and at least three experts in the field of conservation are to be hired by the Punjab government for one year. What the SC has attempted to do is put the best face on the Punjab government’s doings to date, suggesting monitoring and other remedial measures to alleviate the worst effects of throwing caution about heritage sites to the wind. And it has attempted to tie the hands of the Punjab government in future to adhere to an open and public process of assessment before such projects are undertaken. But what the SC has perhaps missed or is not within its purview is the fact that Shahbaz Sharif since 2008 has adopted ‘Punjab speed’ only for politically partisan purposes. The provincial government of Chaudhry Pervez Elahi had worked out a far better plan for an integrated overground in the suburbs and underground in the built up heart of the city mass transit rail linked to feeder lines and bus services. It had been approved by the international financial agencies and the Japanese development organization JICA was on board for funding purposes. That plan was scrapped (as was the Gowalmandi Food Street) on petty political rivalry basis, with nary a thought for what was best for the city, the province and the country. Shahbaz Sharif’s two show window projects, the Metro Bus and the OLMT were targeting the 2013 and 2018 elections respectively. Hence ‘Punjab speed’. What Shahbaz Sharif has wrought in Lahore will one day live in the halls of infamy, whereby a historic city known as the ‘city of gardens;’ has been subjected to widened roads, flyovers and underpasses to facilitate the less than 10 percent residents of Lahore who own private vehicles at the expense of trees, the environment (remember the worst smog this winter) and the health and happiness of Lahoris without in any way being able to solve the traffic gridlock afflicting the city. Modern cities cannot be planned and developed intelligently and in the interests of all their residents, not just a privileged few, in this slap dash, political vested interest driven manner.

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