Orange Line blues

Published May 27, 2017

NATIONS unwilling to preserve their past have a bleak future. I wish this aphorism I concocted turns out to be true, but fear it is contradicted by too many examples of prosperous countries wantonly destroying and neglecting heritage sites.

We in Pakistan are blessed with many great civilisations that rose and fell along the Indus. The earliest known example of proto-dentistry comes in the form of drilled human teeth from Mehrgarh in Balochistan from around 8,000 years ago. This ancient pastoral society lasted from 7,000BC to around 2,000BC, and is widely viewed as the precursor to the Indus Valley Civilisation.

While we are justly proud of Moenjodaro, we were warned recently by a German archaeologist that it is in grave danger of crumbling away. Sub-soil salts are being pushed up, and gradually eroding the walls. Thus, the well-planned city is headed for oblivion. In the 1970s and 1980s, an extensive system of pumps removed water from the surrounding area to protect it, but as so much else, the system is no longer functions.

Some years ago, we had the spectacle of a ‘cultural event’ organised by the Sindh government at Bilawal Zardari-Bhutto’s initiative in Moenjodaro. If a well-educated young man could thus endanger an ancient archaeological site in this cavalier fashion, what hope do other monuments have?

Very little when it comes to Lahore’s rich heritage of Mughal and colonial buildings and gardens. Currently, we have Shahbaz Sharif’s Orange Line train snaking its deadly path perilously close to some of the city’s most precious heritage sites. This controversial project, being built by a Chinese firm at the cost of nearly $1.5 billion, will provide transport to Lahoris over the highly congested old city. But the cost should not be counted in dollars and rupees alone. Its present trajectory takes the tracks within spitting distance of old, venerable sites like the iconic Shalimar Gardens, the Gulabi Bagh gateway, Buddhu ka Awa, Chauburji and Zebunnissa’s tomb. More recent structures that are part of Lahore’s fabric like Lakshmi building, the GPO building and Shah Chiragh will also be affected. It was precisely to protect such historic sites that the Antiquities Act prohibited any development or residential construction work within 200 feet (approximately 60 metres). Experts have warned that vibrations from passing trains could cause serious damage to old foundations laid hundreds of years ago.

The Sharifs want to transform Lahore into a concrete jungle.

Lahoris are justly proud of their city’s history. Nevertheless, the Sharif brothers seem determined to transform it from a supreme example of Mughal garden design and architecture to a modern concrete jungle. On the pretext of widening roads, they have chopped down old and elegant trees, and are now threatening to rob us of some of our most beloved historic sites.

Despite heavy pressure, the previous dir­ector general of the archaeology department had refused to issue a no-objection certificate for the erection of elevated tracks right next to the walls of Shalimar Gardens. His successor had no compunction in doing so.

Luckily, Lahore’s civil society rose up in arms to protect their city’s heritage, and the Lahore High Court has issued a stay order on building anything within 200 feet of Shalimar Gardens. But this has been contested by the Lahore Development Authority, and here is where the matter now stands.

Traditionally, Pakistan’s politicians and bureaucrats are convinced that only they have the solutions to civic problems, and the citizenry should accept whatever foolish plans they come up with. It is this arrogance that has produced the present impasse. Had they sat down with Lahore’s town planners, architects and historians, they might have arrived at a railway line that would have preserved the city’s character.

There can be no argument over developing solutions to urban problems. Cle­arly, Lahore’s citizens deserve a modern transport system, as do Pakistanis living in other cities. But by bulldozing a railway line close to many historic sites, and destroying many houses in the old city that stand in its path, Punjab’s chief minister has needlessly antagonised Lahore’s civil society. As Pakistan’s cities grow exponentially, old structures, gardens and historic areas come under increasing pressure. There is rising tension between the needs of development and of preserving the past. But other cities in different parts of the world have handled this conflict sensitively and skilfully. Above all, administrators and experts have consulted with the community to arrive at optimal solutions rather than imposing them.

In Saudi Arabia, historical sites dating back to the days of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) have been wantonly destroyed to make way for hotels and car parks. Of course, developers can build anywhere provided they have paid off the appropriate princeling.

But surely we can do better. We must be able to hand on the cultural wealth we received to future generations without disfiguring it.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2017

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