Development: Inanimate faces

Published November 15, 2015
Lyari Expressway  under construction
Lyari Expressway under construction

Had the Mughal emperors also fallen in love with Karachi, would love and reverence in modern times also have been constructed in concrete? Going by the Orange Line Metro Train project fracas in Lahore, the disruption of Lahoris’ romance with Mughal-era heritage seems more valued than human life. This is about what becoming moderns is all about; this is about respectability politics prioritising the inanimate over the living.

To be ‘modern’ in Pakistan is to have a façade: of our citizenry and cities being global, integrated into a neoliberal order that defines our desires, choices and tastes. To be modern has been conflated with the desire to have new flyovers, underpasses and signal free corridors. To be modern is to hide whatever is undesirable, camouflaging all that does not fit notions of civilised or respectable.

To be modern seems to be about accepting a particular set of realities as the undeniable and all-defining truth.

For the Punjab government, the Orange Line Metro Train project makes them modern.

For well-off Lahoris, they are already modern. It is their romance with built architecture that the government cannot disturb. The debate surrounding the Orange Line Metro Train project has been one about the loss of history, of heritage, of buildings that left indelible marks on culture, and even of structures that denote life.

Does the romanticism with built architecture trump the narratives of ordinary citizens?

Missing from the story is life itself.

For a city that is one-third the size of Karachi, the pace at which Lahore has been commercialised and integrated into a global neoliberal order has been astounding. The “Big is Best” mantra of our benefactors in the United States and Saudi Arabia has found an audience with the Punjab government; it has also given them tangible advantages for the next polls.

Not that Lahore is the only city embracing concrete as the way of the future.

Back in 2001, as General Pervez Musharraf sought to present Karachi as a modern metropolis to the world, the Mustafa Kamal-led city government of Karachi initiated the Lyari Expressway project. In theory, this expressway was to connect the port to the main highway exit out of Karachi, thereby generating employment and increased commercial activity. All benefits, it was hoped, would trickle down to Karachi’s constituents and make them more ‘modern.’

But when it came down to implementation, the route of the Expressway caused much consternation. It was built almost exclusively in areas that did not vote for Kamal’s party, it was to destroy urban goths and settlements inhabited by Sindhi, Baloch and Searaiki communities, and it was to allow the construction of new shopping plazas and residential areas along the route.

The project came to naught during Kamal’s tenure, as political wrangling over land and finances, as well as delays in resettling those affected by the Expressways provided ample obstructions to the project. The Expressway was temporarily shelved after Kamal’s government went out of office; it is only now, after 14 years, that it is being resuscitated and taken towards completion.

But back then, public pressure on the government to reconsider its decisions centred on the human cost that was being incurred. There were faces of helplessness and poverty, there were stories of land being grabbed and activists being killed, there were tales of gangster plying the routes to mark their territories, there was talk too of commercial activity replacing squatter settlements.

For Musharraf and his coterie, these were small costs to pay at a time when a rapid commercialisation of Karachi’s real estate, particularly along the coastline, was underway. For Karachi’s civil society, the General had gotten it all wrong — he hadn’t factored the lives and livelihoods that were going to be destroyed to feed his neoliberal obsessions. Land grabbing had become a business enterprise, land ownership had became contentious.

There is something similar and something queasy about the debate on the Orange Line Metro Train project.

Much like the Lyari Expressway issue, civil society is back on the streets to protest. Much like Karachi, there is an attempt to provide opposition to a government that is virtually unchallenged. But unlike Karachi, the face of the movement is not people or their plight, but inanimate structures. The furore does not seem to be over the fate of the underprivileged; it seems to be over what is held in high esteem by those building and those protesting. Concrete.

Not that the obsession with saving the environment and heritage is unhealthy; in fact, it is noble and needed. But the framing of the issue needs to give as much priority to the living as it does to the inanimate. As things stand, the debate is framed in elitist terms: our buildings are more valuable than those whose lives are about to be plunged into disarray.

The romance with Mughal-era architecture cannot trump the lived realities of those on the margins in Lahore. If anything, their plight needs to be hand in glove with the destruction that is being unleashed in Lahore. Man has had an intrinsic relationship with the built environment since time immemorial, but civilisations have only survived on the power of ideas not monuments.

The Mughals had a great penchant for beauty and violence: it is said that the Persian architect who designed and constructed the Taj Mahal in Agra lost his eyes, as Emperor Shah Jehan did not want him to construct something so beautiful ever again. Must we mimic the Mughals’ preference to prioritise built architecture over people?

To be modern is to protect what connects us with the past; but to be modern does not entail hiding all that is undesirable. Saving heritage for future generations is of prime importance; but do not forget those who inhabit these spaces and interact with them. Without one, the other ceases to exist.

The writer tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 15th, 2015



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