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Heritage rights

November 02, 2015

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The writer is former secretary general, Parliamentarians for Global Action.
The writer is former secretary general, Parliamentarians for Global Action.

CHILDHOOD picnics in the Shalamar Gardens always turned into family history lessons. “Ali Mardan Khan, governor of Lahore requisitioned our ancestor’s land to build the gardens; the family was relocated to an adjoining village renamed Baghbanpura home of the keeper of the gardens — and given the custodial key to the gardens,” my father would say yet again.

Today, the key is lost, the Baghbans have scattered across the city and beyond and this exquisite Mughal garden is threatened by an encroaching mass of concrete steel cages that have enveloped the centuries-old city of Lahore in the name of urban development. The immediate threat is the construction of the Orange Line urban transit train, the construction reaching within 15 metres of the perimeter wall of the Shalamar Gardens.

The gardens and the Lahore Fort as one continued complex of buildings are included in Unesco’s World Heritage sites. This impending construction is in violation of Pakistan’s international obligations under the World Heritage Convention to which Pakistan became a state party in 1976.


Lahore’s old buildings are threatened by development.


The WHC sets out clearly the duties of states to conserve not only World Heritage sites on their territory, but also to protect their national heritage. “Each state party recognises that the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory, belongs primarily to that state. It will do all it can to this end, to the utmost of its own resources and, where appropriate, with any international assistance and cooperation.”

The WHC also stipulates the obligation of state parties “to report regularly to the World Heritage Committee on the state of conservation of their World Heritage properties”. The operational guidelines clarify that states are under obligation to inform Unesco “of their intention to undertake or to authorise in an area protected under the Convention major restorations or new constructions which may affect the outstanding universal value of the property. Notice should be given as soon as possible (for instance, before drafting basic documents for specific projects) and before making any decisions that would be difficult to reverse, so that the committee may assist in seeking appropriate solutions to ensure that the outstanding universal value of the property is fully preserved”.

Unesco World Heritage Centre director Mechtild Rossler, confirmed last week that they “have not received any information from the Pakistani authorities … [and] are writing a letter to the permanent delegation of Pakistan to inquire”.

Conservation group Lahore Bachao is writing directly to Unesco. According to Dr Rossler in the case of a potential impact on the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage site, Unesco would formally inform the committee, which meets next month. The committee can then send a mission, request a heritage impact assessment or in case of confirmed and serious threats put it on the danger list. The Shalamar Gardens were on this list but taken off in 2012 after completion of a joint conservation repair project.

Punjab claims it has done an environment assessment. A heritage assessment is still needed about the impact on integrity of the historical monument, its internal, underground and surrounding structures. This is not some illegal construction group but the Punjab government abetted by inaction of the federal authorities that is encroaching on a national and World Heritage site.

While public transportation is a basic citizen right; many ancient cities such as Rome and Istanbul build functioning public transport systems while maintaining the integrity of their historical heritage for tourism and future generations.

Rome has an archaeology commissioner for the metro system. Initial plans for the C line metro had to be changed as digging revealed Hadrian’s Athae­neum. Rome’s piazzas, have corners left exposed behind glass showing layers of buried cities turning Rome itself into an open-air museum. The numbers of annual tourists (including international) to Rome in 2012 was 12 million bringing in billions of euros.

In Istanbul, Turkish law requires all digging to be supervised by the Archaeological Museum. In 2004, digging in the harbour for the high-speed tunnel rail brought up 5,000-year-old Neolithic settlements and 37 preserved shipwrecks. Construction was stopped, the museum authorities took over. Ten years later, the recovered and relocated artifacts are a tourist attraction and the train project is complete.

Preserving Istanbul’s past makes economic sense for the present; 11.6 million international tourists visited the city in 2014 bringing in $9.38 billion. As Turkey’s politicians had to accept, it takes longer than one electoral term to complete a mass transit project in an ancient city.

As a World Heritage site the Shalamar Gardens belong, in addition to the citizens of Lahore and Pakistan, to world. We are all its baghbans.

The writer is former secretary general, Parliamentarians for Global Action.

Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2015

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