Not winning, but changing

November 20, 2011

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AS I was recently reminded by a young friend from Lahore, a representative of what has come to be known as civil society which during these past few years has geared itself up considerably, civil society activism is not about winning.

It is all about bringing about a change in the stifling, corrupt, selfish and uncaring atmosphere which sadly pervades the republic of Pakistan.

Civil society groups all over the country have made many positive contributions towards cleaning up the pollution that afflicts the country physically, mentally and metaphorically.

But there has been one severe blot, that of certain members of the lawyer fraternity who perhaps carried away by the success of the 2007-09 restoration of the chief justice of Pakistan movement have allowed the latent violence that lurks so near this country’s surface to get the better of them. Some of their acts have been not only shameful but unlawful in the extreme, and worse is that they got away with it.

Far away from this blot is the Lahore Bachao Tehrik (LBT), a gathering of Lahore-based NGOs, professional and educational institutions and many caring citizens of Lahore. They came together in 2006 when the Punjab government of the Gujrat Chaudhries revealed its plan to widen the Canal Road and demolish some 2,000 trees at the cost of billions of rupees.

They raised their voices, Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhry took suo moto action and directed the Punjab government to comply with the law and conduct an environmental impact assessment of the project. But as the 2008 elections were round the corner the project was no longer a priority.

Come the summer of 2009 and Shahbaz Sharif as Punjab’s new chief minister decided to restart the project. The LBT sprang into action. Ahmad Rafay Alam, lawyer and environmentalist, addressed a letter to the chief justice, inter alia pointing out “around the world, it is taken almost for granted that modern cities progress by investing in public transport … there are over eight million people in Lahore, there are over 1.8 million registered motor vehicles yet less than 1,000 buses….”

Justice Chaudhry again took suo moto action directing that no trees be cut until the decision of the case. For a year and a half LBT members trooped up and down to Islamabad for hearing after inconclusive hearing. The Supreme Court directed LBT and the Punjab government to meet to discuss alternatives. Meetings also remained inconclusive.

Then, earlier this year the court appointed Dr Pervez Hassan as a mediator between the two parties. He appointed a mediation committee, it met and sought presentations from the LBT, the government, experts and academics. Finally, the committee submitted a report with some 18 recommendations.

Of these, the court directed 12 be taken by the government, whilst permitting specific parts of the Canal Road, i.e. 3.5km of a total of 14km, to be widened and the tress thereon done away with. It was also directed that for each tree done away with, four be planted.

The decision has been met with disappointment. Some argue that it is useless to declare the green belt a ‘public trust’ and then allow road widening (the court held that the fiduciary duties involved in a public trust had been satisfied). Others hold that commissions and Rolling Reviews of judgments (as is done in India) are smarter alternatives to mediation. A strong argument is that in mediation, the parties may compromise based on interests other than environmental rights.

The declaration of the green belt from the BRB to Thokar (almost a 60km stretch) as a public trust will probably be the most enduring legacy of the decision. It will protect the green belt from future onslaughts made by future politicians to widen further stretches of the road.

The court has directed the government to enact an Urban Heritage Park legislation (designed and proposed by the committee), the first of its kind in Pakistan. It has directed that incorrectly constructed underpasses be realigned, that side roads be constructed, that entry and exit roads be better designed and that the government implement pedestrian and public-friendly infrastructure along the Canal. Another first is the direction that a public transport system be implemented.

The court’s decision needs to be put into a longer term context. There are casualties in every battle and as many drive down the Canal each day they will be reminded of fallen friends when they see the road widening in process, the trees uprooted. But the court’s decision is part of a war, and the war is ongoing. Activists and civil society must take the positive with the negative, treating those two impostors, triumph or disaster, as equals.These decisions give civil society opportunities to continue to engage in the battle for liveable and sustainable cities. They must not give up. The judgment gives them myriad initiatives to pursue. The government, civil society and, in the end, the city of Lahore may all benefit from their joint vigilance over the government’s implementation of the court’s decision.

Apparently, the additional chief secretary, has already convened a meeting and established sub-committees to come up with strategies to implement the court’s decision.

The members of LBT have worked hard and long over five years, dedicating their time and money to a worthy, even vital, cause. They have succeeded to a certain extent in changing how things are done.

They represent an up and coming vibrant civil society that has managed to spring up in this morass of negativity. Lahore and its concerned citizens owe them and the mediation committee thanks — as they do the Supreme Court and the chief justice.

arfc@cyber.net.pk