As the Punjab government embarks on yet another mega-project in Lahore, concerns about its environmental impact, and the impact on the city’s heritage sites grow in tandem.
Based on assessments by environmental groups, it appears the Orange Line metro-train project directly or indirectly threatens several historical structures, such as the Chauburji monument, the colonial-era General Post Office building, the Tomb of Dai Angan, and the Shalimar Gardens.
Objections to the project originate from two dimensions:
When the Government breaks its own laws
The first dimension includes violation of existing laws by the government itself. At the time of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), and its accompanying public hearing, the existing route alignment was not made clear.
As a result, the ‘approval’ obtained from the general public was premised on faulty or incomplete information.
Secondly, the initial notification of plots (khasras) demarcated for the purposes of land acquisition failed to include others that have now been served notices. This has led to a court intervention in the shape of a stay order on further acquisition and construction.
Thirdly, by building and acquiring land near marked heritage sites, the government is violating certain sections of the Antiquities Act.
Also read: City to lose 620 trees for Orange Line train
A failure to observe its own laws – ostensibly created to safeguard the public interest against such ad-hoc construction – is a glaring shortcoming on part of a belligerent government.
As such, this disregard rightly serves as a basis for civil society mobilisation, both through the courts and through public demonstrations.
A celebration of concrete
The second dimension of opposition is centered on normative or moral-ethical concerns about the city itself. Such concerns focus mainly on the environment, the aesthetic appeal, and the heritage of the city.
They proffer a different view of how the city ‘should’ look like, compared to the concrete-project obsessed perspective of the government.
These concerns have previously emerged against environmental degradation caused by road-widening projects along the canal, the construction of signal-free corridors, and elevated expressways.
The normative dimension of opposition to the government is noble, well-intentioned, and important. Heritage sites should be protected, and environmental concerns need to be highlighted in a city where they are often ignored.
Yet, this aesthetic and environmental battle waged by civil society is, at the end of the day, political in nature.
The government has through its actions repeatedly put forth its vision for Lahore, in which road construction and bludgeoning mass-transit projects are central components. This may not primarily be an aesthetic vision – though looking ‘modern’ is a part of it – it is, however, a ‘developmental’ vision.
While one can rightfully argue that this vision induces skewed development, or accumulates concrete without any real economic growth, it has been sold as such to the citizenry.
Road-widening, flyover, and underpass construction is hailed by a significant chunk of the motor vehicle owning segment in Lahore. Going by MICS data, on average six in 10 households own at least a motorbike in the city. Traders and businessmen see this as proof of the city’s prosperity, and argue that enhanced road networks and infrastructure growth induce greater investment.
This celebration of concrete is also clear in the political mandate that the party has received – from the same affluent segments – at different points in the city’s electoral history.
Even today, most local government office aspirants from either of the two main parties are selling roads and public work projects as their promise to the voters.
In a decidedly different moral universe from flyover construction and road widening, this ‘developmental’ vision of the PML-N now also includes provision of mass transit to low-income commuters.
The socio-economic benefit of enhancing transportation options for the working classes is beyond any empirical contestation. It increases labour force participation, links underemployed households with employers, and generally contributes towards upwards socio-economic mobility.
This is why low-income users consider the Metrobus – for all its implementation flaws, and the rent-seeking nexus it facilitated between political agents and private construction actors – a desirable good.
Increasingly, the PML-N’s vision for Lahore, its desire to make it look ‘modern’, is driven by material messaging. More prosperity for those already prosperous, and (finally) a little something for those languishing on the urban margins. Its economic basis may be flawed, and it will probably end up damaging the city in the long run, but at this point in time, it resonates with a thoroughly aspirational electorate.
The manufactured or organic appeal of concrete stands in stark contrast to the aesthetic vision put forth by those holding environmental concerns.
The link between environmental degradation and long-term economic stagnation is clear, yet it is rarely expanded upon.
Those concerned about such projects – mostly hailing from affluent backgrounds – are more likely to talk about the Lahore of the past, of a green city teeming with ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, before it was taken over by ‘dukaandar’ upstarts (the PML-N).
Nostalgia about a city that was as socially unequal in the past as it is now (if not more) ends up serving as the driving emotion for casual observers and participants, rather than the more pressing question of social justice.
Most serious environmental activists in Lahore, however, acknowledge that aesthetics cannot work as the mass premise for reform in what is still an overwhelmingly poor city.
While post-material concerns may be able to generate a critical degree of support in advanced industrial settings, they cannot carry similar weightage here.
Questions of livelihood, upward mobility, consumption, and growth should remain important, and frankly, it would be unfair for affluent individuals to expect the bulk of the citizenry to sideline such concerns in the political choices they make.
The central problem then becomes of creating a developmental vision – distant from the PML-N’s mangled urban thinking – that couches aesthetical and environmental concerns for Lahore in a larger agenda of socio-economic uplift.
For all the elite networks that activists may tap into, in the bureaucracy or with the courts, political expediency, (whether it’s vote-gathering or corruption) will always win out.
This should be apparent from the fact that even political operators from the main opposition party, who otherwise jump at the chance to take on the government, hold largely the same ideas about urban development.
Expecting a party to give up a winning formula (i.e. their developmental vision) under pressure from a small group of activists is akin to hoping for a miracle.
The real test for all of us opposing Lahore’s death-by-concrete is to create an alternative vision of environmentally conscious urban growth that resonates with real material concerns of the citizenry, and goes well beyond lamenting the demise of a historically unequal, privilege-preserving city.