People & Society

Why the Orange Line Metro Train in Lahore is highly controversial

Published 23 Apr, 2018 10:22pm
A brand new Orange Line train stands in a partially completed station | M Arif, White, Star
A brand new Orange Line train stands in a partially completed station | M Arif, White, Star

Heavy machinery hums and drones outside Zurgham Lukhesar’s law office. Bulldozers are moving the earth, cranes shifting construction materials and mixers preparing reinforced concrete. The vibrations caused by all this activity are so strong that they have caused water pipes in his office to leak. He has placed buckets and pails here and there to save the floor from getting wet.

This has been going on since December 2017 when the Supreme Court ruled that the Punjab government could go ahead with the construction of an elevated train track for its flagship project, the Orange Line Metro Train. Since then, the construction activity has led to the demolition of a mosque next to Lukhesar’s office. Parts of the nearby Mughal-era shrine of Baba Mauj Darya have also been demolished.

Lukhesar, too, had to pull down many parts of his office building, owned by his family since the 19th century. He claims to have spent about 20 million rupees to rebuild some of the demolished parts. New problems, however, are emerging in the rebuilt sections as work on the train line proceeds.

His office is located where Maclagan Road passes between the Accountant General’s office in the east and the Regional Tax Office in the west; the Lahore High Court is less than a kilometre to the northeast of it.

This part of Lahore constitutes perhaps the most controversial 8.4 kilometre stretch of the train track — with the tomb of a Mughal princess at one end and Lakshmi Chowk on McLeod Road at the other. Many landmarks of Lahore’s architectural heritage – Chauburji, the Lahore Branch Registry of the Supreme Court, the General Post Office and the Aiwan Shah Chiragh building (also known as Aiwan-e-Auqaf) – are all located in this area. The boundary walls and peripheral structures of some of these buildings have been demolished. Others, such as the historic Shalimar Gardens, will be a stone’s throw from the track and will be constantly subjected to the heavy rumble of trains passing by.

“We are pursuing public transport projects at the cost of people’s houses, livelihoods and social lives,” says Lukhesar as he stands over the rubble that once formed a part of his property.

Even mosques and churches, some as old as St Andrew’s Church built in 1860 (located next to the Supreme Court registry), are either pulled down or seriously threatened. The construction of the track has led to a partial or complete demolition of 42 schools and colleges as well.

Scores of residential blocks, privately owned businesses and properties – including such pre-Partition structures such as Kapurthala House, Maharaja Building and Bengali Building – have been partially or entirely razed to make way for the project. “Most of the residents in these buildings do not have proper land titles because their families moved here during the chaos of Partition in 1947,” says Lukhesar. The legal problems they faced in receiving compensation for their houses have been immense, he adds.

Lukhesar’s own building was not registered in the names of his family’s current generation. It was still under the ownership of his great-grandmother, he says. “We had to pay more than 20,000 rupees to change the ownership title.” Most other people would not have the money to pay for bribes or be able to access the right people to bribe, he adds.

Many of them still refuse to leave because they feel compensation has been inadequate. Hameeda Bibi, who has been living in Maharaja Building since her marriage in the 1960s, is adamant that she will not leave the building until the government makes an alternative housing arrangement for her.

“We are pursuing public transport projects at the cost of people’s houses, livelihoods and social lives,” says Lukhesar as he stands over the rubble that once formed a part of his property.

The Punjab government rushed through an environment impact assessment of the project in June 2015. Most glaringly, it did not address the issue of land to be acquired and its impact on the city’s architectural heritage as well as the lives and lifestyles of its residents.

Based on this assessment, officials of the Lahore Development Authority started marking roads, buildings and other structures for demolition by August 2015. Police would often accompany them. At many places, gas and electricity supplies were disconnected to force people out of their residences. These tactics led to small, sporadic, spontaneous protests. The area around the Mauj Darya shrine alone would see over 100 protests between August 2015 and January 2016.

A group of civil society activists joined the protests in September 2015. They put together a letter and sent it to almost every political representative in Punjab, arguing against the project. A couple of months later, journalist and human rights campaigner I A Rehman, architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz and activist Neelam Hussain filed a petition with the Lahore High Court. Lukhesar would later submit 15 more petitions on behalf of people living in an old site marked for demolition.

A residential block near Jain Mandar in Lahore being demolished for Orange Line construction in 2016 | Azhar Jafferi, White Star
A residential block near Jain Mandar in Lahore being demolished for Orange Line construction in 2016 | Azhar Jafferi, White Star

“We wanted the court to stay the eviction of people and the demolition of buildings and infrastructure,” says Maryam Hussain, a key member of the activist group. The court obliged and in January 2016 issued an order to halt construction work around 11 heritage sites until a final verdict was reached.

The Lahore High Court finally gave its verdict in August 2016, ruling that the government could neither forcibly evict people nor make any changes to the heritage sites. The provincial government challenged the decision in the Supreme Court, which heard the case for months and reserved its judgment in April 2017, releasing it eight months later.

The judgement, written by Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan, set 31 conditions for the government before it could resume work on the project. For example: heritage sites must be protected from dust; their windows and ornamental parts should be fully covered; vibration sensors and noise barriers must be installed to protect old buildings from the din and tremors caused by construction work; and construction material must not be stockpiled inside heritage sites. The judges also ordered the presence of technical experts during construction activities around antique buildings and special premises. Other major conditions obliged the government to rehabilitate the historic hydraulic system at the Shalimar Gardens (damaged in an earlier road construction project) and ensure the protection of green belts around Chauburji.

The work resumed just a day after the verdict was issued. That in itself was a violation of the Supreme Court’s conditions, according to Maryam Hussain.

The government was first required to carry out a heritage impact assessment to ensure the documentation of the existing conditions of heritage sites. The work began much before the assessment took place, she says. More importantly, she adds, none of the heritage sites were put under protective covers before the work started again. In many cases, the covers appeared weeks later, she alleges.

While most sites are covered in green nets by now, parts of them – like their domes – remain uncovered, Maryam points out. She also remains sceptical about the effectiveness of the covers. “I do not know if this net can protect the sites from dust.” Even more worryingly, she says, metal pegs to fasten the nets have been thrust into the very buildings that the nets are meant to protect.

Maryam also remembers visiting Chauburji, the tomb of Princess Zebunnisa, Shalimar Gardens and Gulabi Bagh on January 21 this year and not finding any vibration sensors there. The sensors, she claims, were installed at many of the sites after most of the high-vibration activities, such as excavation, had already taken place. Many others sites, according to her, still do not have the sensors.

Khawaja Ahmad Hassan, chairman of the government’s steering committee for the project, says the provincial administration’s obligation to protect heritage sites comes only after its duty to provide a transport facility to the public. He, however, claims the government is fulfilling all the conditions set by the Supreme Court. A committee headed by a Lahore High Court judge is regularly monitoring the compliance, he adds.

The writer is a staffer at the Herald

This was originally published in Herald's April 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.