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LAHORE: The World Heritage Committee (WHC) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has advised Pakistani authorities to carry out and submit visual impact assessment of Shalamar Gardens, but allowed them to pass the Orange Line Metro Train project’s elevated track as per plan in front of this world heritage site.

According to senior officials, the go-ahead to Pakistani authorities was given in the 40th meeting of the committee held in Istanbul, Turkey, from July 10 to 17.

Presided over by Lale Ulker, the WHC chairperson, the event was attended by 21 committee members, including Pakistan, and representatives of over 100 member states affiliated with Unesco.

“Though the meeting was scheduled to be held from July 10 to 20, its duration was squeezed following the failed coup attempt in Turkey. We reached back safely a couple of days ago after presenting our stance to the participants. We were finally allowed to pass the Orange Line track in front of the Shalamar Gardens after 13 of the 21 members voted in our favour,” Lahore Development Authority (LDA) Chief Engineer Asrar Saeed claimed while talking to Dawn.

Advises authorities to carry out, submit site’s visual impact assessment

About the objections raised and the Pakistan authorities’ response that convinced majority of the members, the chief engineer, one of the members of the Pakistan delegation headed by Punjab Mass Transit Authority chief Sibtain Fazal Haleem, said the core concern of the committee was distance of the track from the gardens.

“The WHC was told the track is passing at only 12 metres (around 40 feet) from the gardens. But we told them the distance is 41 metres (over 135 feet) from the main gate. Next they asked why the track was passing over the gardens’ hydraulic water works, which was again incorrect information, as the track was about 8.25 metres (over 27 feet) from the water works,” Saeed added.

He said the committee was told the track had been kept at a considerable distance from the gardens through a curve. When asked if the WHC mentioned keeping 200 feet away from the heritage sites under Pakistani laws, the official replied in the affirmative.

“But we also told them that if we start constructing the elevated track 200 feet away, about 1,300 more families will have to be relocated due to land acquisition. The only objection that we can agree to do is the conduction of visual impact assessment, which we told them we will submit soon,” he added.

The LDA official said the delegation had also asked the WHC to send its mission to Lahore if it wanted to verify the information given regarding the distance and construction methodology. He said prior to the WHC meeting, the government had sent all project reports -- heritage impact assessment, feasibility report, vibration analysis, construction methodology to the committee a few months ago. He further said the WHC members who supported Pakistan’s stance included Finland and Turkey. And the opponents included Lebanon and Portugal.

Talking to Dawn, Khawaja Ahmad Hassaan, adviser to the chief minister, appreciated the authorities for pleading the case well.

“I have been reported about the decision and I have conveyed this to the chief minister,” he said, adding that the government was making efforts to protect heritage sites under a proper construction methodology.

The WHC had in October last year raised serious concerns over passing of the track in front of the Shalamar Gardens after it received a series of reports expressing concerns for the heritage site due to the urban development projects being implemented in Lahore, particularly the proposed metro train track.

Through an Oct 29 letter written by Mechtild Rössler, director of the World Heritage Centre, Unesco, Paris to Ghalib Iqbal, permanent delegate of Pakistan to Unesco, the WHC had also sought halting the civil work.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2016