Footprints: Trail of destruction

Published November 6, 2015
A sign placed on a road near the Shalamar Gardens reads ‘Work Zone Drive Carefully’. The route is part of the Lahore Orange Metro Train Project that has become controversial as it is passing along historical heritage sites.—Arif Ali / White Star
A sign placed on a road near the Shalamar Gardens reads ‘Work Zone Drive Carefully’. The route is part of the Lahore Orange Metro Train Project that has become controversial as it is passing along historical heritage sites.—Arif Ali / White Star

Shahzad Sarwar points towards the neat black handwriting on the gate of his residence. “OL-38-5”, it says, and while no-one knows what the numbers mean, they all know OL stands for Orange Line. This new metro train project of the Punjab chief minister has left many people irritated.

Sarwar lives at (Kaccha) Lake Road, off main Lake Road, and this area adjoins the heritage building Kapurthala House. Here the people are not just irritated — they’re livid.

Every couple of days they take out a protest rally all the way to the Chauburji roundabout and demand that the Orange Line’s route be changed.

“It started before the local government elections, when we saw our houses and even an Imambargah marked with yellow chalk,” says Parveen, a resident. Later, officials came to tell us these would be razed.”

Government employees aren’t being spared either. Arif Naseem, a sanitary worker who lives in the Post Officers’ apartments, says they have been told to vacate though no date has yet been given. Neither have they been offered any compensation, whether money or alternative housing.

“These flats are old and badly maintained,” says Naseem, pointing out the seepage and cracks in the building that was constructed in the early 1970s. “But at least we have a home.”

Sarwar — who contested for the seat of councillor in the recent polls — draws a rough map and shows how the train will cut through the entire residential colony. “About 2,000 houses will have to be razed,” he says. “There will be a lot of destruction and many people will be left without a choice.”

The Kapurthala House was in what was historically known as the Ventura Garden, laid by Ranjit Singh’s Italian general Ventura. The mansion was once used as a state guest house. Later, it came to be called Ahlewalia or Kapurthala House. Today, it is neglected and decaying.

Old-timer Mohammad Siddiq remembers his childhood living in the Karputhala House area. “I still remember how I played here as a child,” he says, his eyes misting. “I was born here, and grew up here, and so did my children and their children,” he says. Now 70, he has dyed his white hair mehndi orange and sits on the steps outside his house every evening watching people go by.

“I was born two years before Partition,” he says. “Some Hindu families used to live here but once Pakistan came into being, they left. I have seen old houses crumble and fall over, and new ones erected with cement and plaster. Now, very few houses have heritage value but some of the families here go back around 200 years.”

For these families, the area represents their entire social and safety network, their businesses and places of work and education.

Other Lahoris, especially those from the Lahore Bachao Tehreek, have protested over not just the Kapurthala House area but also other heritage sites which they claim will be damaged if the train passes by too close.

“No development plan or new construction on or within a distance of 200 feet of any protected immovable antiquity can be undertaken or executed,” says Imrana Tiwana, an urban planner. “If this happens it will be a clear violation of Section 22 of the Antiquities Act, 1975.”

Areas affected include Jain Mandir, the Chauburji (originally built as an entrance to the gardens of Zaibunnisa, Aurangzeb’s daughter), and even many points on Mall Road which is dotted with heritage sites. Activists say a very old church is endangered, as well as the homes of teachers of the University of Punjab.

Dr Imdad Husain, a public policy expert, says that the government has probably done the worst by not sharing plans or proper maps of the scheme. “Even with the other mega-projects, including the Metro, there have been no deliberations or consultations, and we expect issues to arise later on,” he says. “It seems as though these projects are all done in a hurry. With the Orange Line, people actually do not know the overrunning cost and other details. It would have been very basic to keep citizens on board.”

Though heritage sites are not being demolished, in some places the area surrounding them is being infiltrated. Still, a stay order issued by the court is currently keeping the matter suspended.

The other big issue is that of displacement. “People will be displaced,” says Dr Husain. “But I believe it will be done in phases to keep it quiet.”

A government official from the Traffic Engineering and Transport Planning Agency concurs, on the condition of anonymity. “This is a high-profile project and they should be bringing the public on their side, not pushing them away,” he says. “One of the biggest issues is that it is not a complete subway because that would have minimised on-ground demolition. Instead, it surfaces and also goes underground, which leads to a lot of land being used.”

Kapurthala resident Adeela sums up the problem in a nutshell.

“If they mean to serve the public by making this Orange train, then is making us homeless part of the scheme too?” she demands angrily.

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2015

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