Shahid Mahboob, a resident of Muhammadi Mohalla inside Lahore’s Walled City, has been living in a small room with his wife and six children for the last many months, forced to do so neither by pecuniary problems nor by the whims of nature. He is the victim of a project which originally promised to make his life better by restoring his ancient house to its pristine historic beauty along with scores of other residential buildings in the locality.
The Project Management Unit (PMU), a Punjab governmental department responsible for carrying out the restoration and renovation of old houses in Mahboob’s neighbourhood, demolished the second floor of his residence approximately five months ago — and subsequently appears to have forgotten all about it. They haven’t returned even to retrieve the construction equipment deployed at the house, he says. “Now I am forced to sleep on the street and my family has to make do in a 7×8 foot room on the ground floor of our house in hot weather,” he tells the Herald as he points to the ruinous living conditions inside his residence, where debris and construction material lies strewn all around.
Others living in Muhammadi Mohalla, one of the many localities in Lahore’s Walled City that are being restored and renovated as part of the Lahore Walled City Sustainable Development Project, are similarly unhappy with the project’s management and its execution. During a visit to the neighbourhood in June, the Herald was unable to find residents who felt that the project was working towards its intended targets. Locals complain that the government, instead of ensuring the promised improvement in the physical appearance and atmosphere of their houses, has ended up achieving the opposite — inordinate delays, substandard restoration efforts and civil works have created more problems than they have solved.
Even a casual visitor to the area will find it impossible to ignore the unseemly changes brought about by the project. Fresh plaster on the façades of some houses is already peeling off; some wooden entrances are shoddily painted, appearing downright ugly; work on restoring the windows of the locality’s arched entrance has been left incomplete and its walls have been poorly refurbished — paint and plaster appears to crumble at the slightest touch; and the ‘improved’ drainage system simply does not work. Sewage and rainwater refuse to flow through the drainage and instead inundate the streets. The poor quality of plumbing in the locality often results in the accumulation of water inside the houses, which then finds its way into the fabric and foundation of the buildings. “Electrical wiring in the streets has not been carried out properly,” Shaikh Javed, a local resident explains. He adds: “Residents have been facing power fluctuations ever since the rewiring.”
Even in houses where the quality of restoration is better than in others, residents have serious complaints. This is the case with Shagufta Bibi’s house which, from the exterior, appears to have been restored, but the situation inside is not different from other houses in the area. “The entrance door [to one of the rooms] has not been properly fixed — it falls down unless it is opened carefully,” she says. “Gaps have been left in the wooden ceiling of one of the rooms and dust continuously falls down from these gaps.”
People living in the locality say they have lodged several complaints with the government but the relevant officers of the PMU have never bothered to address their problems. Orya Maqbool, who was director general of the PMU until February 2011, agrees that the complaints are genuine and the quality of the restoration work “carried out in the locality is poor”.
These grievances resonate even more loudly when residents make inevitable comparisons between the restoration work in their area and a similar restoration and renovation project carried out in two nearby localities by the non-governmental Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). Those living in Gali Surjan Singh and Koocha Charkh Garan, both situated north of Muhammadi Mohalla, happily testify to the fact that conservationists and engineers working with the Trust have remarkably restored the façades of their houses and vastly improved the interiors. “The entire look of Gali Surjan Singh and Koocha Charkh Garan has changed for the better now and all residents are satisfied,” says Syed Ahmed Abbas, the custodian of a local imambargah and a social worker.
Their praise for the AKTC becomes all the more significant when seen in light of the fact that residents of Gali Surjan Singh and Koocha Charkh Garan had to bear some part of the restoration expenses themselves. “My house was built more than 150 years ago,” says 70-year-old Shaikh Muhammad Jahangir, a resident of Koocha Charkh Garan. The AKTC spent more than 1.7 million rupees on the works carried out inside his residence whereas he contributed 219,000 rupees from his own pocket, he tells the Herald. This was a large amount of money, he says, but believes it was well spent.
Official documents say the AKTC-led initiative is meant to be a pilot project, a means to test whether urban rehabilitation and infrastructure-improvement interventions can work in the conservation of older parts of the city without leading to the displacement of local residents. Its second intended purpose is to test and finalise design concepts and construction methodologies prior to the launch of a larger project in the Walled City.
The preservation work in Muhammadi Mohalla is part of the first phase – known as Package I in official terminology – of the larger project. The package includes schemes for infrastructure development and urban rehabilitation including façade improvements of all the buildings situated between Dehli Gate and Chowk Purani Kotwali (see map).
Unqualified public approval for the AKTC’s restoration efforts means that its model could have been replicated throughout the project with positive effects. In fact, local residents were so satisfied by the AKTC-led work that they willingly paid up even after the organisation raised the ratio of resident contributions midway through the project. “In 2010, we collected 12 per cent of the total cost of the interior works from home owners but in 2011, 15 per cent was raised from those who were interested in the restoration of the interior façades [of their homes],” explains Masood A Khan, the AKTC technical director. The AKTC contributed towards the entire cost [work done on the streets and on façades], he adds. In total, he says, the Trust has spent 230,000 US dollars on home restoration, with an additional 100,000 US dollars on improving the streets.
The government-run PMU, on the other hand, is financing its restoration project in Muhammadi Mohalla from the public exchequer and yet local residents are unhappy. Perhaps this is because the PMU, among many other things, is also unwilling to focus on the restoration of home interiors. “We are not going to carry out interior works; our focus is on façades, streets, electricity and sanitation works,” says Shahid Durrani, the PMU Project Director. “We will work inside of those houses where residents have altered the original buildings [by constructing additional structures such as kitchens and bathrooms],” he adds.
The estimated cost of this first phase, according to official documents, stands at 1359.778 million rupees, out of which the World Bank is providing 692.818 million rupees as a loan while the Punjab government is contributing 666.960 million rupees from the public exchequer.
The project also demands that solutions used for improving living conditions in Gali Surjan Singh and Koocha Charkh Garan are implemented across the entire area that falls under this phase — but the PMU performance so far casts serious doubts on its ability to maintain the pace and quality of the work within the parameters set by the AKTC. Durrani claims that problems have appeared because of the large scale of this project that his department is required to implement in the short amount of time at its disposal. “The AKTC has taken two-and-a-half years to complete restoration works around just two streets while we have to finish work on all 57 streets [earmarked for the first phase of the project] in one year.”
But the pace of work, by all accounts, is excruciatingly slow, with more than 80 per cent of restoration planned, yet to be completed. While such delays creating problems for residents like Mahboob who waits his turn so that his home is renovated, this state of affairs is also likely to jeopardise financial inflows to the project. The World Bank loan will expire if it is not utilised by November 30, 2012 and the Punjab government may also pull the plug on the project on June 30, 2013.
Another major challenge threatening the sustainability of the project is AKTC’s decision to quit providing technical assistance to the government (see Matters of Trust).
Durrani admits that the pace of work has been slow but says this is because “conservation work needs time”. But he hastens to add that the project is going ahead regardless of problems and bottlenecks — and will continue doing so. Restoration work is in full swing on 22 out of 57 streets in spite of such hurdles as the AKTC’s decision to withdraw its technical support as well the approaching expiry of the World Bank loan, he tells the Herald. “The work [during the first phase] will be completed by June 2013,” he claims.