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Lahore’s bleak future

October 23, 2017


PROVISIONAL census results show Lahore district’s population at 11.1 million people. This is up from 6.3m in 1998, through an average annual growth rate of three per cent. To accommodate these extra 4.8m individuals, the city’s built area has grown from 32,700 hectares (80,803 acres) in 2000 to nearly 40,000 hectares (98,842) in 2017. Bounded by the toxic swamp once known as river Ravi on one side, much of the city’s expansion in the built area has taken place towards the Indian border in the east, and towards Kasur and Okara in a south-western direction.

That Lahore’s expansion has hastened a number of environmental challenges is a fact worth repeating endlessly. The water table has dropped rapidly over the last decade, falling by up to nine metres in some neighbourhoods. Drinking water safety too has suffered, with dangerously high arsenic content in a majority of samples taken across the city. Air quality has perhaps been the biggest victim with nitrous oxide content recorded as high as 332mcg/cubic metre, a full 290 mcg/cubic metre higher than safety benchmarks, around Mohlanwal in southern Lahore last year.

Many people have written about Lahore’s suburban expansion led by DHA phases, LDA housing societies, Bahria Town, and hundreds of other imitations. Underpinning this growth is a century-old cultural and aesthetic logic that consecrates and deifies suburban lifestyles. Since Lahore’s growth under colonial rule, ie outside and away from its historical walled confines, detached and sprawling houses have been associated with prosperity and elite status. The old civil lines neighbourhoods surrounding what was then called Donald town were developed to provide housing to colonial administrators and segments of the local elite. The most privileged officials back then, as is the case now, took up quarters in the leafy and insulated confines of GOR. Even the military built sprawling bungalows for its commissioned (usually white) officers further east in Napier cantonment.

There will be no day when the entitled wake up and decide that they can live equally well in smaller residences.

As historian William Glover documents in his book, Making Lahore Modern, collaboration between the local elite and British administrators led to the development of a new ethos of urbanisation that was thought to be modern and forward-looking, a world away from the derelict condition of its old walled city. This conception of modernity, partly encapsulated by a stand-alone, gated house connected to the world beyond its walls through wide roads continues to this day.

From the land grab of evacuee property that ensued after Partition in 1947, to the development of new suburbs such as Shadman, Gulberg, and Garden Town by the city government in the 1950s and 1960s, all the way to our contemporary DHA-dominated era, the relationship of prosperity with outsized residences remains largely intact.

On its own, the upper class moving to sprawling residences built in the city’s suburbs is not a unique feature. This has happened at various points in the historical development of metropolises like London and Paris as well as most of urban United States. What makes Pakistan’s case particularly challenging is the filtering of this suburban ideal down from the elite to the more squarely middle class as well.

If the legal and political regime around land development was structured in a way that houses equal to or bigger than 500 square metres (roughly one kanal) were accessible only to the top one per cent of earners, the rate of built-area growth would taper off. However, in contemporary Lahore, owning a 500-square metre property is a desirable (and often an achievable) goal for as much as 10pc of all households. Those unable to attain this size-based metric of mobility within their lifetimes make do with 250-square metre houses, but bequeath their subsequent generation with the same ideal.

In Lahore, and urban Pakistan in general, basic social facets such as prestige, status, even marital opportunities are tied to owning a detached, gated house in a desirable neighbourhood. One by-product of this is that real-estate projects catering to middle-class buyers or investors, design their developments to imitate those at the top of the market, replete with unsustainable green spaces and wide, car-accommodating boulevards. Another by-product, one closely tied with the growth of automobile ownership, is that distance from places of work is rendered increasingly irrelevant. This helps explain why people are more than happy to move 25 kilometres south and an hour’s commute each way for a bigger property.

From a policy perspective, the cultural/aesthetic preferences of Lahoris will not change on their own. There will be no day when the entitled wake up and decide that they can live equally well in smaller residences. Therefore, any change for the better can only be enforced by a government willing to both penalise suburban sprawl through higher property taxes and fines on unoccupied land, and encourage high-density, vertical development closer to the city centre.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen any time soon: gains made from converting arable land into plots by developers, real-estate investors, politicians, military personnel and bureaucrats are far too lucrative. Individuals involved in every step of this profit-making enterprise face an incentive structure that pushes them to replicate it constantly. Politicians are either investors in such schemes, or promote them unhindered to retain their financiers and funders. The military maintains its own land business to keep retired officers happy and employed and to make a tidy profit for itself. Businessmen and household savers alike see it as the safest possible investment, with little regulation and guaranteed returns. In short, the economics of land development is intertwined with its politics, with each reinforcing the other in a vastly sub-optimal cycle

Those who wish to see a cleaner, healthier city are thus doubly straitjacketed. The political economy of profiteering from land development has combined with the cultural preferences of prosperous and upwardly mobile Lahoris to plunge us headfirst into unmitigated environmental disaster.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2017