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LAHORE: While the Punjab government is set to commence work on the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) project today — following the Supreme Court’s verdict on Friday — it is planning on completing the project on fast track and opening it by April next year.

However, members of the civil society who had filed the petition against the construction of the OLMT have decided to file a review petition and fight back.

According to official sources, civil works within the 200-foot radius along all heritage sites will be launched simultaneously, including the 1.72-kilometre-long and most crucial underground portion from Jain Mandir to Hall Road-McLeod Road intersection. “The underground portion requires around eight months to complete, as it involves massive digging, piling, shuttering, concrete casing etc. Though the 34 conditions imposed by the Supreme Court have made the task more difficult, we want this to be complete by mid of April next,” Project Director and LDA’s Chief Engineer Asrar Saeed told Dawn on Friday.

On the other hand, members of the civil society who were petitioners in the case have vowed to continue their struggle by filing a review petition in the apex court against the SC’s verdict that set aside the Lahore High Court’s previous decision to halt civil work within the 200-foot radius of 11 heritage sites under the Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance, 1985 and Antiquity Act, 1975. The sites where civil works were suspended in the light of LHC’s decision were Shalamar Gardens, Gulabi Bagh Gateway, Buddhu ka Awa, Chauburji, Zebunnisa’s Tomb, Lakshmi Building, General Post Office, Aiwan-i-Auqaf, Supreme Court’s Lahore registry building, St Andrews Presbyterian Church at Nabha Road and Baba Mauj Darya Bukhari’s Shrine.

Civil society campaigners vow to fight back

The civil society activists warned that Shalamar Gardens and Lahore Fort might be removed from the list of world heritage sites because of the apex court’s decision.

“Today we faced defeat, but we will continue our struggle to save this city,” said Kamil Khan Mumtaz, chairperson of the Lahore Conservation Society. He was of the view that the verdict would leave a negative impact on Pakistan in terms of heritage protection.

The issue regarding possible danger to protected sites came into the limelight after construction of the project — 27.1km route from Dera Gujran to Ali Town — was formally launched. Civil society members raised the issue and demanded that the project be constructed underground with tunnel boring machines, while the government stuck to its stance of executing over 25km of the project on an elevated track.

However, Unesco intervened in October 2015 by writing a letter to its representatives at the Pakistan National Commission for Unesco to take up the issue with the Punjab government, and halt work in front of the Shalamar Gardens.

Last year in March, Unesco asked the government to submit a Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) report along with other technical studies related to the project in order to discuss the matter at the 40th World Heritage Committee (WHC) meeting held in Istanbul from July 10 to 20 this year. Another meeting of Unesco’s WHC was held the same month in Poland, which civil society activists and provincial government representatives attended. After the meeting, the government claimed that they had received a green signal to pass the train along Shalamar Gardens.

However, the civil society rejected the government’s stance, stating that the state representatives had insulted Pakistan at the Unesco’s July 8 session held in Poland, by not inviting the Reactive Monitoring Mission to visit the Lahore Orange Line Metro Train project (Shalamar Gardens section) on the pretext that the case proceedings were pending in the Supreme Court, and by not submitting a Visual Impact Assessment report of the scheme to the committee.

“On the pretext of the case being subjudice, the government is yet to allow the Unesco’s mission to visit the project despite the fact that they have requested many times. The government even refused their visas when they applied at their respective embassies,” deplored Maryam Hussain, one of the activists fighting the case. “It was a simple issue of a 200-foot radius of the heritage sites, as no intervention could be made there under the law. But the court allowed the government to violate this law,” she added.

According to officials, 79 per cent of civil works on the project is complete including work accomplished in Package-1. “Fifty per cent work related to the laying of the track has also been completed by a Chinese company (CR-Norinko). Grey structures of most stations, except those in the underground portion, have been completed,” an official of the LDA’s urban development wing said. He said an emergency meeting of the project’s steering committee had been scheduled for today (Saturday) to discuss the conditions set by the SC and to launch civil work along the heritage sites in line with the court’s verdict as soon as possible.

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2017