People & Society Tapestry

The road to nowhere

Published Mar 19, 2015 03:50pm

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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.

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.

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.