THE Lahore Development Authority is currently in the process of planning and notifying an amendment to the Lahore Master Plan, which was approved in 2004 for a period of 17 years. The proposed amendment serves to rezone a large tract of agricultural land that lies in the eastern fringe of the city, between Barki road and GT road, close to the border with India. This will subsequently allow for large-scale residential and commercial activity, which, in Pakistani terms, usually implies the development of gated housing societies and half-vacant shopping plazas.
As per LDA’s own regulations, amendments to the master plan require a public hearing, which was subsequently held on suspiciously short notice on Jan 29 at the LDA head office in Johar Town, Lahore. During the course of this public hearing, LDA apprised the handful of concerned citizens — who managed to take time out at 10 am on a weekday — about its plans through a series of maps showcasing the new 17,100 acre large ‘project area’.
The first noticeable item was that the project area already includes upper-income housing developments built on what is declared agricultural land under the current incarnation of Lahore’s master plan. This includes the statute-protected, army-controlled Defence Housing Authority Phase VI and VII.
The second thing that stood out is that the land that LDA seeks to convert is listed as semi-restricted by the armed forces. This implies that a No Objection Certificate is required to build in this territory given its proximity to the border. LDA, however, is confident that the armed forces will provide it with the approval, given how they themselves are planning extensions to several of their own schemes (like Askari and DHA).
The LDA’s own paradigm is completely fixed on building sprawling housing schemes for the already propertied.
The third, and perhaps most bewildering aspect was that according to LDA’s own estimates, the army has declared a strip of land bordering the BRB canal as ‘restricted territory’, ie where no construction of any kind can take place. However this regulation, it appears, does not apply to the army-controlled DHA.
Its Phase VII, blocks U, X, and Y, and Avenues 11 and 12 are firmly located within this restricted belt. If, heaven forbid, war were to break out between India and Pakistan, the affluent families enjoying their suburban, one-kanal corner plot dreams will be on the frontline, juggling mortars and grenades a mere 10 kilometres away from the border.
LDA’s own rationale for this conversion is fairly prosaic: overall housing pressure, shortage of existing commercial land, and overpopulation in the Batapur/Harbanspura area is precipitating this change. However, on closer assessment, the reasons provided and the solutions proffered do not appear to match.
For starters, Lahore — for a city of 10 million people — is still remarkably low-density. Ninety per cent of the urban built-up land in the city contains less than 150 individuals per square hectare. Under all international standards this is 50pc less than the ideal density rate for thriving metropolitan centres. A diffused city loses out on the agglomeration gains (such as skill transfers and greater labour force participation) that arise from both commercial and industrial activity in high-density environments, and contributes to high road-building costs, which end up benefiting car-owning segments of society. The ideal solution for a city, which is already unevenly populated, is to grow up, not grow outwards.
Secondly, there is no doubt that Lahore faces a massive housing shortage. However, this housing shortage exists largely for those at the bottom of the income pyramid. The lowest 60pc of households, as measured by income, have access to only 5pc of the existing housing stock. The rest of the market caters only to the middle and upper-income segments, which are otherwise a minority in population terms.
What this has left Lahore with is a plethora of empty housing schemes, where fully developed plots are traded in a wildly speculative real estate market. The velocity at which these ‘files’ move contributes to their rising value, which serves no purpose other than to price a significant portion of the public out of purchasing contention.
What’s worse is that the LDA’s own paradigm is completely fixed on building sprawling housing schemes for the already propertied, or to encourage the lucrative trade in ‘files’.
This can be seen from the way existing schemes like Johar Town or LDA Avenue have developed, or proposed schemes like the massive LDA City, have been planned. When the government says it is interested in providing housing through such rezoning efforts, the underlying message — as gleaned through historical evidence — is that it is inclined to serve the interests of the real estate and construction lobby, and of those citizens who are already propertied and affluent.
Finally, this new amendment negates the vision set out in the masterplan, which proposes the city’s future growth in a south-southwest direction between Multan Road and Ferozepur Road. This was agreed upon after a lengthy deliberation process, which included feedback from conservation groups, architects and urban planners.
Part of the rationale at the time was that the eastern fringe of Lahore would continue to remain agricultural, thus ensuring ‘green cover’ for a polluted city and a steady supply of perishable food items, like vegetables, fruit and milk. The LDA now tells us that this land isn’t really used for ‘productive agriculture’, and hence an amendment to the original vision is justified.
There are many things that are wrong with Pakistan, but the state’s constant ignorance of how its own ad hoc policies seek to exacerbate socioeconomic inequality, and how such policies threaten the very future of the cities they plan to ‘develop’, must rank near the top. This latest proposal to allow for an expansion of Lahore towards the east is another example of the state’s class bias and its disregard for the rules it sets out itself.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2015