Lahore’s forgotten villages

Published May 15, 2023
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

EARLY reports from the 2023 census suggest that Lahore’s population may have crossed the 12 million mark, ie, an addition of nearly a million more residents since 2017. In the previous inter-censal period (1998-2017), Lahore was recorded as one of the fastest growing cities in the world, with an annual average population growth rate of nearly 4pc.

With rapid demographic growth comes a host of other problems, especially due to capacity constraints and inequality in the distribution of resources that are common to developing country contexts. In a column published a few weeks ago, I shared one such problem: a series of alarming findings from water quality research carried out by the Action Research Collective (ARC) in Lahore. The high prevalence of water contamination in densely populated, low-income areas is nothing less than a public health crisis and should be a cause for concern for everyone.

There is one aspect of the geography of water contamination that deserves more scrutiny. Many of the areas where water quality is especially poor happen to be old village settlements that have become (forcibly) ‘urbanised’ over time. This transformation is widespread and certainly not limited to one or two locations. In fact, if one were to talk about the development of Lahore over the past 50 years, the process of villages turning into dense, low-income urban settlements is perhaps its single biggest feature.

At the time of the colonial revenue settlement in the 19th century, there were roughly 200 villages in Lahore district. Some of these were close to the original city core (the Walled City), such as Naulakha, and were converted into urban settlements very early on. Many others were scattered both to the east (towards what is now the Indian border) and the south, bounded by the river.

The trend of devouring agricultural land for low-density planned development accelerated when lucrative returns from real estate became the norm.

In the space of a hundred years, real estate development by both public and private-sector actors converted agricultural land of these villages into a variety of different types of housing schemes. Some prominent examples include the cooperative/trust-built Model Town (built on the forest land of Kot Lakhpat), the government-constructed Samanabad (built on the agricultural land of Sodhiwal), the military’s DHAs (built on the agricultural and residential lands of many villages including Charar, Kamahan, Kir, Sangatpura, Chak Dhira, and Harpalke), and the private sector built Bahria Towns (developed on the rakh and agricultural land of, among others, Sheikh Kot and Tarogil). In addition, dozens of smaller colonies by private entrepreneurs similarly mushroomed in different parts of the city.

The trend of devouring agricultural land for low-density planned development has accelerated since the 1980s, especially once lucrative returns from real estate became the norm. The absence of regulation and the active participation of government entities, such as LDA, in this trend is also a significant factor. With the announcement of RUDA, the entire process is set to accelerate at a rate faster than what’s been witnessed so far.

There are clear ecological implications for the wholesale conversion of food-providing arable land into mostly empty plots for investors. But there is also a very significant developmental problem concerning living conditions in the old residential settlements of these villages (ie homestead), that are often surrounded by the newer schemes.

Contrary to what real estate developers and government planners portray, new planned schemes cater to a very small segment of the population; ie, those who can actually afford to buy mid and large-sized plots and build houses. For the vast majority of Lahore’s residents, it is the residential land of old villages that remains the only option for housing. This is also true for the thousands of fresh migrants that come to the city seeking better opportunities.

Given bounded dimensions and high population pressures, some patterns are already very clear. There is a serious issue of water contamination, as identified by the ARC research. There is also a crisis of everyday infrastructure, such as street paving, solid waste management, and electricity access. Lack of sewage and sanitation facilities lead to deteriorating health conditions, while the combination of population growth and lack of building regulations inside ex-villages results in many unsafe structures. Even a brief visit to one of the larger ex-village settlements, such as Chungi Amer Sidhu or Bagrian, will show all of these issues being compounded on a daily basis.

With adverse living conditions, there are associated social problems that are mounting at an alarming rate. Drug use among young males, lack of employment opportunities outside of informal, casual labour, everyday violence, and high school drop-out rates remain inter-connected and pervasive.

None of this is meant to pathologise poverty or trace its origins to the ‘poor choices’ of residents of these ex-villages. State resources that can be used to improve living conditions here are often diverted towards other ends, and the absence of effective local governments means that residents are reliant on piece-meal ‘projects’ — the laying of a sewage line, the re-paving of a street, a temporary clean-up of garbage — that MNAs and MPAs announce around election time. Instead of these infrequent interventions, what is actually needed is a concerted effort to upgrade water, sanitation, sewage services and basic infrastructure in these settlements.

For some reason, a section of Lahore’s upper-income population proudly asserts that the city is cleaner and better developed than many others in South Asia. This assertion is based on willing or unwilling blindness to how large sections of the city’s population actually lives. The planned and orderly streets of gated housing schemes constitute a large landmass but house a small segment of 12 million Lahoris. The reality of the city is elsewhere, such as in the decrepit conditions of ex-villages left unattended, after their agricultural land was converted to satisfy the needs of a few.

The writer teaches Politics and Sociology at Lums.
Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2023

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