THE launch of the multibillion-dollar, Dubai-style city project on the Ravi riverfront does not sit well with the PTI government’s election manifesto which had promised to reshape the country’s development strategy by moving away from the mega brick-and-mortar schemes and invest in citizens for inclusive, sustainable growth. In spite of appeals from experts to cancel the River Ravi Urban Development Project owing to environmental and other reasons, Prime Minister Imran Khan chose to move ahead with the planned launch on Friday. With the government struggling hard to kick-start growth and push the contracting economy out of recession, Mr Khan is apparently pinning his hopes on the revival of stalled construction activities for an early turnaround. Hence, his government has in recent months announced significant fiscal and monetary incentives for builders and developers to boost housing, especially for the low-income segment, in the country. The intervention is showing some positive results with the increase in domestic consumption of cement and other building materials in July.
The expected private investment of Rs5tr on the development of the new city, which would be spread over an area of 100,000 acres and straddle the river north of Lahore, may boost construction-related industries and create thousands of jobs over the next several years. But can the project, which is being undertaken without an independent, comprehensive socioeconomic impact assessment, help Lahore tackle its numerous civic problems: shortage of safe drinking water for a majority of its population, inadequate drainage, overpopulation, degradation of the living environment, shortage of schools for children etc? The answer is in the negative. Instead, it is feared that the scheme will further weaken the delicate ecological balance as floodplains are being used to build high-rises, and the poor and their livelihoods will be upstaged to pave the way for luxury living of the wealthy and powerful.
In the past, the prime minister has repeatedly spoken of the urban sprawl and its impact on the environment and citizens. However, the construction of a new city is not the answer to these problems. Nor can it be a substitute for better urban planning. Instead of new cities/urban settlements, we need to invest heavily in improving the deteriorating infrastructure — water supply, drainage, education, health, environment etc — in the existing ones. Also, the government needs to bring these public services to smaller towns in order to control unchecked growth in labour migration from less developed areas to major urban centres for jobs and better services. Just ‘development’ or short-term economic prosperity through mega brick-and-mortar projects may not work out without assessing their benefits for the majority of the people. Instead, we need ‘responsible development’ that ensures the prudent use of public money and requires the government to invest heavily in human development and improvement in the quality and extension of essential public services to all for sustainable economic growth.
Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2020