The Lahore High Court's (LHC) decision this August to suspend construction on Lahore’s Orange Line Metro Train within 200 feet of 11 heritage sites is a critically important verdict given that the project is part of CPEC.
Five historical sites are at risk from the $1.47 billion project awarded to the Chinese contractor CR-Norinco: Shalimar Garden, Gulabi Bagh Gateway, Buddhu’s Tomb, Chauburji, and Zebunnisa Tomb.
In addition to these sites, five special premises are also at risk: Lakshmi Building, General Post Office, Aiwan-e-Auqaf (Shah Chiragh) Building, Supreme Court Registry Building, and Mauj Darya Darbar and Mosque.
The issue was brought to light after citizens of Lahore were shocked by the demolitions carried out by the Lahore Development Authority (LDA). Once the LDA started taking down the verandah of the General Post Office, a group of about 20 organisations and several individuals came together to lobby the government and parliamentarians. They filed Right to Information requests and petitions.
One of the primary issues brought to court was the legitimacy of the No Objection Certificates (NOCs) that had permitted the construction to begin.
The NOCs are issued by the Director General (DG) of the Archaeology Department, who under Section 22 of the Antiquity Act 1975, has to evaluate whether construction with 200 feet of antiquities will affect these sites or not.
The certificates are also approved by a committee formed under the Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance 1985 (PSPO), whose job is to protect special buildings from damage.
The previous DG had raised objections about the irreversible impact on these sites, but the new head of the department swiftly granted the NOCs when he took office, without giving consideration to reports by experts and the original committee formed under PSPO.
Defects in the issuance of the NOCs were indeed recognised and addendums were issued in May 2016.
But by that time, construction on the project had already begun.
More importantly, the issuance of the new NOCs still had procedural faults.
The advisory committee, formed under the Antiquity Act, had its impartiality compromised as it was made up of members affiliated with the government, such as the DG who had issued the faulty NOCs in the first place.
It also had Dr. Pamela Rogers on board, whose Heritage Impact Assessment, the court found, did not follow the standards prescribed by the International Council on Monuments and Sites.
Furthermore, the committee relied on expert reports that lacked credibility.
The reports were written by the National Engineering Services Pakistan and the LDA – both government bodies. Reports by independent engineers on key aspects such as vibration analysis were not taken into consideration.
The committee had also gone beyond its purview by prescribing mitigation measures in the NOC since their job is to only assess the potential damage to the sites.
Therefore, the court concluded that both the original and the revised NOCs were illegal, unreasonable, and arbitrary.
Despite the LHC decision to suspend construction near the protected sites, the fate of the buildings still hang in balance, as the case is being taken to the Supreme Court, where it will be presented on October 13th.
The government is going to argue that all the procedures were duly followed and that the NOCs should stand.
While this particular court case concerns only the heritage sites, the issue is much larger and the Supreme Court decision is likely to have an impact on how those questions are resolved.
Large infrastructural projects have consequences when it comes to people’s right to land and resources.
The Orange Line is 27km-long and along its route, people are being evicted so that the government can acquire the land.
Most are poor and some are even refugees from 1947.
The government gave compensation to people but even that is riddled with problems.
Cash handouts were given to recipients based on their CNICs and electricity bills.
However, many of the inhabitants don’t have proper documentation to prove that they are the rightful inhabitants of the land that the government is eyeing.
The government has said that if anyone is later found to have incomplete property documents, they will have to reimburse the money to the government.
Buildings of religious significance for minority communities are also in danger, including imambargahs and the St. Andrew's Church.
Dozens of schools are in danger of being demolished as well.
The Lahore High Court has issued several stay orders but we will have to wait and see how these issues are finally settled.
The issue goes beyond the Orange Line in Lahore and includes all the projects funded under CPEC.
As CPEC gains pace, we have to ask whether procedural requirements related to environmental assessment and land acquisitions have been satisfied or not.
Has free, prior and informed consent of the people been taken ?
Do we have adequate laws to protect the rights of the people?
Are any of these laws in need of reform?
Are the institutions that provide protection from arbitrary action robust or are they prejudiced towards neo-liberal development?
A lot rests on the Supreme Court decision, if we are to pave the way for sustainable development so that we can protect our heritage, nature, and environment.
For that to happen, civil society activism and media scrutiny is necessary so that pressure can be maintained on the courts and the government.