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A terrible beauty

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Ahmad Rafay Alam

With the completion of the latest package of the Lahore Ring Road, you can traverse the northern parts of the city and get from the airport to Ravi Road in fifteen minutes. All is changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

I took the road from the airport last week and marvelled at the flashing countryside of Harbanspura, scowled at the hazy sky over the brick-kilns past Mominpur, held my breath past the landfill at Mehmood Booti and, before I knew it, was on Ravi Road, where the majestic Badhshahi Mosque greets travellers entering the city. Normally, through the city, this is at least an hour-long drive. With the Ring Road, it felt that I had travelled at Warp Speed. But all is changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

The Lahore Ring Road project was first conceived in 1984 as a bypass around the city that would ease congestion in the city. In the early 1990s, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) proposed a road loop encircling the entire city and the World Bank prepared a feasibility for a 60-kilometre ring road. Through the 90s and early part of this decade, the circumference and other aspects of the project designed remained in flux and, despite its groundbreaking in late 2004, continue to change. The original completion date of the project was December 2008 but construction on the southern loop, from the airport, through Defence, past Ferozepur Road to the Hudiyara Drain, the dusty little village of Halloki, Bahria Town and Thokar Niaz Beg is still underway.

The enormous affect of the newly opened packages of the Ring Road is immediately clear to anyone who uses it. The accessibility it provides brings hitherto unexplored parts of Lahore into reach. My first impression of the effect it had on adjacent property prices was confirmed, but for good reason. The entire eastern and northern flank of the city is now merely minutes away and new real-estate markets, commercial opportunities and potential industrial zones beckon. Once the southern loop is complete, yet more shall appear. There is no doubt of the awesome potential the Ring Road reveals. But all is changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

The obvious and awesome benefits of a Ring Road cannot be denied. But they do come at quite a cost. The NESPAK website states the 19 packages of the project will run $359 million. But depending on whom you ask, it may be as high $1.7 billion. It’s difficult to quantify the returns the project will bring, but the homes, shops, retail centres, offices, factories the minds’ eye conjures will certainly generate enough economy to make even this amount worthwhile.

But that’s not the way Pakistani cities work. Back in the days the Ring Road project was being dreamed up, you could stand in (what is now) DHA’s H-Block Market at night, face east and have nothing but fields between yourself and the glow coming from the lights in neighbouring Amritsar. Now, from that spot, you can go travel east to the fully inhabited Phases II, III and IV. If you venture further, you can drive past the newly constructed Phase V and the still-to-be-inhabited Phases VI and VII.

But the growth of this part of the city has been neither equitable nor environmentally friendly. It makes one wonder whether such development is even worth the name. The houses are for the minority elite, are automobile-dependent and energy-inefficient. There are no sidewalks for those who work in DHA but can’t afford cars, while cyclists are routinely harassed and beggars simply not allowed by security staff manning the entry and exit points. Few other planned urban spaces–with the exception of Islamabad–are so unfriendly towards the poor. Yet the DHA is the standard that other private developers aspire to.

Driving along the northern loop of the Ring Road and past numerous villages and settlements, one asks oneself whether the markets and industrial zones that will sprout along the artery will benefit the current inhabitants of the areas. Will the billion of rupees spent on the six-lane road built next to their homes have a positive economic, social or environmental impact? Will their Town Municipal Authorities have the ability to provide the road, sanitation and other infrastructure that will make future residential, commercial or industrial activity feasible? Will there be schools and hospitals to ensure that a minimally respectable habitat exists for the next generation of Lahoris? Will there be parks? Will there be beauty?

Observing the contours of the urban planning path followed by Lahore, one can predict what will happen: The land mafia that has, according to word on “the street,” already bought every parcel of land available, will monopolise the residential property market and will develop it at massive profit for the benefit of those few who can afford to invest in land. None of that profit will filter back into infrastructure development, the cost of which will therefore be borne by the local government with money either lent to us by foreign donors or raised by our taxes.

To build and lay down the infrastructure, the local or, more likely, provincial government will claim public purposes and exercise its right of eminent domain to displace families and scatter communities (as the Ring Road has done to the little community that once lived near the Harbanspura Pul). Thus, an economic and social disparity will be created between the people who live next to the Ring Road on the one hand and the people who benefit from the Ring Road, on the other. No, sir, when one drives down the newly constructed northern loop of the Lahore Ring Road, one can distinctly tell that all is changed, changed utterly and that a terrible beauty has been born.

Postscript: My column last week regarding the Lahore High Court’s Facebook ban received more responses than any other. The furore over the immature and highly irresponsible act of provocation has passed and has revealed several interesting things. First, our collective method of responding to blasphemy has become more sophisticated. I’m not saying that banning Wikipedia is a sophisticated thing to do. But it is better than attacking the American embassy in Islamabad (in response to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses), a cinema in Peshawar (in response to a letter published in The Frontier Post), an MCB (the first Jyllands-Posten cartoon saga).

The international condemnation of violence to express displeasure was so overwhelming that, when the second Jyllands-Posten sage occurred, some people in Lahore put their money where their mouths were and paid for billboards that stated they peacefully protested blasphemy. With the Facebook Shame, had it not been for the Lahore High Court’s prohibition and the overeager enforcement by the PTA, protests were peaceful and, what is more, well-thought-out and -argued. The response and evolution of protests against blasphemy are getting better and may, one hopes, one day win the debate.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email:

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