The road to nowhere

Photograph by Arif Ali/White Star

Photograph by Arif Ali/White Star

Some call it the Berlin Wall; others describe it as an unwelcoming, disconcerting barrier. A third group sees it as a muffler, tightly – rather, forcibly – wrapped around the neck of a seemingly unwilling metropolis and its residents.

These are the different ways that the residents of Lahore see the elevated pathway being built for a bus rapid transit (BRT) service between the southern and the northern ends of the city. Most of the 27-kilometre-long pathway has been completed in less than a year — all except for two components: a small stretch connecting Niazi Chowk on the southern side of the Ravi River to Shahdara on the northern side, and an overhead bridge across the river dedicated for the bus service.

The provincial government, which is funding and overseeing the construction of the pathway and related expenditure, claims that the bus service will provide a transport facility that the people of Lahore could only have experienced abroad. Residents of the city, however, appear unable to appreciate the promised benefits, at least not until the buses can start running. From the city’s most eminent people to its most ordinary dwellers, everyone so far can only be heard complaining about the project.

“They [government officials] have not taken into consideration the peculiar character of Lahore’s heritage nor have they consulted artists, historians and social scientists [while planning the project]. All of them would have said: ‘Look, what you are doing?’” says Salima Hashmi, former principal of the National College of Arts, Lahore. She is also a member of the advisory committee of Dilkash Lahore, a project recently initiated by the Punjab government to protect the city’s history and heritage.

According to her, the government is duty-bound to maintain the city’s historic and aesthetic look while introducing anything new. “The history of a city is as important as faith. It takes hundreds of years to build the character of a city, which should not be compromised [since it is necessary] to keep intact links with the city’s past,” she tells the Herald. “The authorities have not taken into consideration the city’s character while starting the bus project, blindly following it as the only solution.” The pathway, made of high concrete walls and steel fences, is something that cannot be easily removed, says Hashmi. “It will bring a huge change [in Lahore’s character], both aesthetically and environmentally.Ajaz Anwar, a senior artist who has regularly made Lahore the subject of his paintings, and is known for raising his voice whenever an attempt is made to distort the city’s character, says that the character of a city is directly related to urban planning, which in turn is directly related to the economy, environment and or psychology of people. ”The bus project has disturbed all of them,” he says.

While Hashmi agrees that providing transport facilities to the people is important, she also insists that it is not the only requirement for a city. “A city has many layers which should never be ignored. I am not anti-development or against giving people decent, economical and safe means of transport, but one has to look for options best suited to their pockets and convenience.”

She says people-friendly governments always ask people what they require the most before launching major development projects. “Governments assess their financial position and then spend on what the people require. I don’t think this has been done in this case.”

Hashmi says the feel of the pathway is highly authoritative, and it looks as if someone at the top has decided for the people where they will go. With the pathway zipping away from major transport destinations in the city, including its main bus stops, the railway station and intra-city road links such as Mall Road, Jail Road and Multan Road, it seems to start nowhere and end nowhere. Hashmi points out that the two ends of the pathway – at Gajju Matta village in the south and Shahdara town in the north – have neither government offices nor industries, private businesses or educational institutions where people need to commute to for work or other activities. “What would people do after reaching either side of the route?” she asks.

Critics also see the structure of the pathway as tremendously bothersome. Firstly, they say, it has divided the city into two parts by blocking movement across the roads; people now have to travel many kilometres just to move from one side of a road to the other, especially in the Ravi Road area near Minar-e-Pakistan. “The bus pathway has divided Lahore into two parts — one for the rich and another for the poor,” says Anwar, who is also the secretary of the Lahore Conservation Society, a non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving the city’s historic character.

The elevated pathway under construction. Photography by Tariq Mahmood/White Star

The elevated pathway under construction. Photography by Tariq Mahmood/White Star

Secondly, critics argue, the elevated pathway is too high. The government is installing automatic escalators to carry commuters from the ground level to the elevated bus stations, but people would have to take more than a hundred stairs in order to come down. This will only create problems for children, women and the elderly, argues Hashmi. “Think for a moment of an old man accompanied by a pregnant woman and four children struggling to climb down the stairs. Do you really think it will be easy for them?”

The elevated pathway has also blocked the view of many historic buildings such as the Government College and the shrine of Lahore’s patron saint, Data Ganj Bakhsh. It winds through the congested residential areas around Lytton Road permanently robbing the dwellers of sunlight and exposing them to toxic emissions from diesel-fuelled buses.

Anwar sees the project as a manifestation of the political ambitions of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. “The sitting ruler of Punjab is posing as a Sher Shah Suri,” he says. “The only difference between the two is that the Suri of old built a road which is still being praised while the sitting Suri is building a road which is being rejected during its construction,” says Anwar.

The ground-breaking for the construction of the pathway occurred at a politically significant time. In March 2012, the federal government of the Pakistan Peoples Party was under tremendous pressure due to investigations into the ‘memo scandal’ and the contempt-of-court case against the then prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. Newspaper reports suggest that the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN), which heads the Punjab government, was considering resigning from the assemblies at the time in order to force an early election. But then some senior party members reportedly advised against quitting parliament without first being able to complete some major project to attract voters. Otherwise, they feared, a surging Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf would reap the benefits of early elections in the PMLN’s strongholds of Lahore and central Punjab. This advice resulted in the project being launched that same month.

Some government officials involved in the planning and construction of the pathway and the BRT project readily agree that it is politically motivated and that is why it is neither well planned nor tailored to the needs of the city. “The project was launched in desperation, with the mistaken idea that it will attract voters which earlier schemes like subsidised roti and the distribution of laptops could not,” says one senior official, who is part of the team that supervises the project. “It was initiated without a feasibility report,” he tells the Herald on condition of anonymity.

Construction of the elevated pathway blocks traffic movement across the road. Photography by Tariq Mahmood/White Star

Construction of the elevated pathway blocks traffic movement across the road. Photography by Tariq Mahmood/White Star

He is also not sure whether the project will be able to win over voters, who were not part of the consultation process. “I don’t know whether the government will earn the praise or wrath of the people for this project. But one thing is for sure: the government never asked people what they required,” he says.

According to the official, the government will supply diesel-generated electricity to keep the escalators moving, which is not just a costly move but also something that will make the voters unhappy. “The government could have won over people by installing power-generating units with the same money, or it could have paid the money to power-generating companies for ensuring an uninterrupted supply of electricity to the people in Lahore,” he says.

The provincial government, however, rejects all criticism against the project. Javaid Aslam, chairman of the Punjab government’s Planning and Development Division, is responsible for carrying out the project, says critics are opposing the project because they have a habit of opposing developmental schemes.

Those posing objections against the bus project did not allow the widening of Canal Road which was necessary for regulating traffic in Lahore, he tells the Herald. These people are talking of preserving the landmarks of the past, forgetting that the present government is giving the city a project for the future, Aslam says.

He also disagrees with the suggestion that the project has harmed the look of the city. “No view has been blocked by the pathway. The elevated track, in fact, provides the best view of what Lahore offers.” The only problem is that such a view is no longer available to all those walking, moving, living and working under the formidable shadow of the high-rise track.

He also does not see anything wrong with the entry or exit points of the bus route. “In the near future, all public transport vehicles coming in to Lahore from Kasur [in the south] will stop at Gajju Matta, transferring passengers to the rapid bus system there. Similarly, no such vehicle coming from the north would be allowed to enter Lahore. It will drop passengers at Shahdara and they will then use the rapid buses to enter the city,” he explains.

Saeed Akhtar, chief engineer at Lahore’s Traffic Engineering and Transport Planning Agency, says the government did not need to consult everyone over the project as there are relevant departments to look into all associated costs and benefits. Those objecting to the project must understand that people need to adopt a modern lifestyle for catching up with the world, he says dismissively. “Either we listen to them, or resolve the problems of the people.”

Akhtar says the government will provide a bus service hub within the city, near the Mohammaden Anglo-Oriental College, so that people coming in from both Gajju Matta and Shahdara can disembark there and then move to other parts of the city. “This way the pathway will have a destination,” he tells the Herald.

Akhtar is also of the view that the pathway will regulate traffic in the city, rather than dividing it. The fences will ensure smooth flow of traffic, for they will remove the interrupting traffic travelling across the pathway route, he says.

28 thoughts on “The road to nowhere

  1. At least he tried to do something for the people unlike the federal government and the other provinces. One can not make every one happy and some sacrifices have to be done for development.

  2. I am not against the project itself, but the question is whether it was the most important and essential thing to do. Knowing people are starving, with no jobs, education is rock Bottom, Basic needs aren’t there, including Lectricity, Gas and Petrol. I am sure there are more important things to do than just building roads, bridges. Think with empty pockets and empty stomach, no one is going to use this. First try to fill peoples pockets, give thiers kids the education, health and a good safe future thats only by listening to them. But our leaders are knobs, thick, they have their own priorities lined up which can serve them better not the public. When are we going to learn this, perhaps never.

  3. Mere critects and so called city fathers can only talk but can,t do any thing practically. It indeed a project of public welfare ,to provide them respectable and cheap mode of urban transport facilities .the people who are commenting against this mass transit project have ever not travelling like common peoples all they have big cars and had nothing to do with common people. Zafar Iqbal faisalabadl .

    Unfortunately Pakistan lacks leaders. No where in the modern world any country can build something like this without taking consultations from HISTORIANS, ENVIRONMENTALISTS, ALL STAKE HOLDERS etc.

  5. Do you really think VOTERS are educated enough to complain about the project ? .. We are the nation who are divided by these politicians. None of them are sincere to the public and there issues. And Bravo! we are again and again giving them the chances to suck our blood more and more ..

  6. Though you complain of its route, you also complain of the fundamental consequence of elevated routes: blocking sunlight, and “aesthetically” unpleasing. Regardless of the route, wouldn’t we still have the sunlight/ugly issue? If it weren’t a grade separated path, then people would complain that lanes of traffic were allocated solely to a bus. And if its underground, people will complain of its astronomic cost.

    Some people will never be happy. This is just one part of a bigger project. Why do so many commentators forget the bigger project? If its not all built at once, people complain that “why doesnt it come to my neighborhood!” No matter what is built, commentators will complain just for the sake of complaining. Truly, a Pakistani pastime.

  7. Bangkok had same problems when they built the sky train and freeways and it all looked so ugly but everything looks pretty good. So take a deep breadth lahoris. If this bus thing does not work we could use it to build a light rail or use it as freeway.

  8. I have just one question. How and when the cost of this project will be recovered?. So far I have not read or heard anything along these lines. Can some one provide this information.

  9. There was criticism over the construction of the motor way as well. Is there anyone still regretting the motorway? It is better to get something out of these politicians as oppose to getting robbed by them like the central Govt. in Islamabad.

  10. It is almost hilarious to say that this path way has divided the city into rich and poor. It is just amazing how people can come up with anything just for the sake of opposing something. Folks, it is a great service to have and you are welcome not to use it if you hate it so much. It is ok to preserve heritage but it’s not ok not to advance in the name of heritage. At the same time there could be shortcomings, as there are in any big project, so talk about correcting those errors rather than rejecting the whole thing all together.

  11. I love Lahore, that is where I grew up though I live very far away now I still love it. Its time we had a mass transit, like any big city. There should be one running east west and eventually converted into light train routes. Welcome to modernity, except change or be left behind.

  12. Its a good initiative and should be praised. Not everything satisfies everyone. At lesat the government made an effort to do something, rather than just issueing statements. But I always wonder why Punjab government’s all big projects involve huge imports rather than getting the local things. Yellow cabs were imported though cars are made in Pakistan, similarly Metro buses were again imported while good quality buses are made in Pakistan. It would have helped local economy as well.

  13. Will after very long time lahorie come to in action.The current political administration tooke some brave step with political risk not only to elevate the pathway but to elevate the Lohorie life too.Major project like this will allways be subject to some biase critics.With the growing population.Pakistan need more investment & development in all major cities to update there infrastructure.Historian and conservative community are like the GREEN party in europe and in north America.There ideology is negative in regard to any construction&development..If the aged building is falling off on poeple head let the person bleed but never update the building.If the tree loosing the leaf in otom naturaly,, that is due to polution in the air..Let the trees breath to live but if the poeple cannot breath let them die.That what they will say and that how they make there living and that is there political agenda.

  14. As always we in Pakistan have to complain about anything that is progress in form or shape. Yes Lahore has a character, yes it has heritage, yes it has culture, but it also has tons of problems in the form of congestion, pollution and traffic nightmares. Why cant we take something like this in a positive way and talk about the benefits that it could provide instead of painting it in a negative way. All the issues mentioned in the article may be valid but it also is valid that Lahore is a major city and growing every day and we need to start thinking about how we are going to manage issues now instead of painting everything in a negative way because of our political leanings or other agendas. So let this service work the way it is intended and in the future add more to it so that it can truly be a service to the city. Oh and yes i also am from Lahore, and it makes me happy to see progress no matter how small.

  15. What a waste of public money. Funny enough all this happening around the election time. Where was punjab govt for the past 4 years? And how many people are actually going to benefit from it????

  16. I think writer dont konw the living standard of Poor People, how they travelled on daily basis to use Public transport to reach their Workplace on time. This only be feel by that person, who travel on busses and vans what blessing of this Metro Bus for them to save time and Money.
    Peoples facilities is more important rather than to talk about the heritage. The main dilemma in Pakistan is that People crticized the Government in both way whether they done some Projects or not.

  17. ‘The road to no-where’ sounds a little absurd. Rightly said that Gajjumata and Shahdra are no big towns but the buses run through the length of Ferozpur Road. Number of commuters and public transport vehicles have always been highest on this road. Putting financial equation aside, the bus service surely facilitates the common people with a better traveling experience.

  18. The modern day Sher Shah built a motorway which is still under utilised and was never meant to connect the main sities of the Punjab. I love driving to Islamabad beause there is hardly any traffic on it. Metro Bus is somewhat similar except it has divide the city, made it more expensive to move around Ferozepur Road and destroyed well built roads. It is going to be very difficult to use and the idea of installinng generators to run escalators is wholly uneconomic. Another speciality of TEPA is to divide roads in such a way that trrafic joining from connectinng roads has to make long trips and Uturns to go tothe other side. I hope I am wrong and the project works!

  19. Uncle Zia, Abba jee, and two stooges make the land of pure perfect. Let me share a true national joke with you: A Mian Saheb was on a morning walk with his massahib (appeaser) on his back. While walking, he enjoyed eating/chewing gunna (sugar cane), and throwing chiller (sugar cane’s waste) on his back. Every time Mian Saheb will throw the chiller (waste) on his back, his masaahib (appeaser) will pick up the chiller and recycle it through his mouth to enjoy the remaining (if any) juice out of the waste and praise Mian Saheb with these words “Mian Saheb bhaag luggay rahn, kyaa chillar suttya hai, mazay aagay” Mian Saheb replies “Puttar saadday naal rahaingaa tay ais tarahn he maujaan karaingaa” O’ yes…
    Hey Lahore/Pakistan, it is just a beginning of Sharaafat” Those days are not far when the whole nation will start re-enjoying the waste of sharaafat. Aaagay aagay dekhiay hota hai kya,.. khotaa hai kya?

  20. Eight percent car owners were allocated more than eighty percent of road space. What about 92 percent, they too need some mode of mobility within the city. It is obvious that this mass of humanity is not without a footprint, may be Metrobus is not very smartly designed footprint but much better than toxic carbon footprint of car owners.

  21. “Hashmi points out that the two ends of the pathway – at Gajju Matta village in the south and Shahdara town in the north – have neither government offices nor industries, private businesses or educational institutions where people need to commute to for work or other activities”

    I am amazed to see this comment coming out. According to the study being carried out by LUMS Small cities initiative, it was noted that in almost all developed countries, people that live in cities which lie within the 60 km radius of the metropolis contributed as a major workforce for the metropolis, however, for Lahore this was not the case. this was because the entrance points leading to Lahore were always chocked, wasting a lot of time for the laborer who commutes through buses to enter Lahore. this as a result hinders the positive effects that Lahore could bring to these small cities and the major working force that residues there. By building the Lahore Metro, we have actually helped the thousands of laborers, industrial workers and government clerks that live in areas in the outskirts of Lahore such as Shahdara and Kasur who could now compute daily to Lahore without any time wastage and benefit greatly from the greater business opportunities present in the metropolis.

  22. Sometimes it has to do more with the practicality of the project than the history. People complaining should take a look at Japan; some appreciation is in good order.

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