The farce of ignoring the obvious

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Ahmad Rafay AlamWe have become so used to the way our cities are run that we often overlook the obvious and begin to treat glaring anomalies as normal. The farcical manner in which the public’s money is wasted on the pretext of developing and beautifying the city of Lahore and improving transport and congestion would be funny – downright hysterical, in fact – if it weren’t so negligent.

Take the Traffic Engineering and Planning Agency (TEPA). Technically, it’s the wing of the Lahore Development Authority responsible for the city’s road and traffic infrastructure. Under the devolution plan and the previous government of Chaudhry Perwaiz Ilahi, the TEPA had been getting larger and larger road development contracts. But the Shahbaz Sharif government has pulled the rug from under them, so to speak, by announcing that his government will henceforth allot the road development projects in Lahore to the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO). The chief minister has experience in dealing with the FWO. During his previous tenure, the FWO undertook extensive road development projects in the city. One should note that it is exactly these roads that are currently congested, lending support to the well-known and demonstrable argument that road widening projects do not reduce congestion. The TEPA, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be up to the challenge to deal with the unmanageable traffic congestion in Lahore. Hence the CMs choice to work with people whose track record he’s familiar with.

Congestion is one of the ills of a modern city. According to the World Bank’s environment assessment of Pakistan, urban air pollution is responsible for Rs65 billion in environmental damage every year. Automobile emissions and traffic congestion are main contributors to poor urban air quality. Poor air quality translates to poor health. The World Bank assessment suggests that some 22,000 premature adult deaths and 40 million cases of acute respiratory disease are caused by poor urban air quality every year. The air quality in our cities is the worst in history. The need to tackle the evils of congestion should be high on the government’s list of priorities.

The TEPA, the C&W Department and, come to think of it, most transport infrastructure organisations and their outdated engineers are of an outdated school of thought that believes that the best way to fight a problem is by employing its antidote. If congestion is a problem then its inverse, ease of mobility, would be the antidote. According to this outdated argument, investments in easing mobility will combat traffic congestion. So far so good, but the real problem begins when the outdated thinking associates ease of mobility with nothing more than bigger, wider roads.

In early 2006, TEPA began to remodel the junction between Mall Road and Zafar Ali Road. Because it was a major road construction project that had adverse environmental impacts, under the law the TEPA should have undertaken an environment impact assessment of the project. This would have given a better idea of the impacts of the road construction project as well as an idea of alternative and energy- efficient techniques of road remodelling. No such EIA was conducted or public hearing thereof held and, therefore, a complaint was filed before the DG of the Environment Protection Agency of Punjab against the TEPA for their violation of the specific and mandatory provisions of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act, 1997.

The EPA ordered the District Officer (Environment), Lahore to conduct a site survey and also ordered its own inspection of the construction site. Both reports clearly state that the TEPA was in violation of the law. The DO(E) even wrote to the chief engineer of TEPA and advised him to conduct an EIA. His letter was ignored. During subsequent proceedings before the Environment Tribunal of Lahore (still pending, by the way, with no signs of a decision in the near future), the TEPA disclosed that the project cost them Rs47.97 million.

When the Zafar Ali Road intersection was complete, the TEPA posted boards on Zafar Ali Road announcing a Rs38 million road remodelling project. This project introduced a new, third lane on Zafar Ali Road at the expense of the sidewalks on either side. When the widening was complete, the TEPA began construction of two bridges over Zafar Ali Road that lead into the exclusive Gulberg V residential enclave. The cost of the project wasn’t announced, at least not to my knowledge, and so I can’t confirm their construction cost. Very conservatively, I would think that the TEPA spent at least Rs100 million on the Zafar Ali Road and junction remodelling.

The Mall Road/Zafar Ali Road intersection is across what is called the gunda nalla. Once a water channel, it is one of the 16 open sewers in the city. It flows into Main Gulberg where it meets the drainage nalla carrying waste from the Cantonment. Both then flow under the Canal and make their way to pollute the River Ravi.

The nalla coming from the Cantonment is worth noting. Before it meets with the Zafar Ali Road nalla, it crosses the front of the College of Home Economics, passes through the Gulberg Industrial Area and under the Sherpao Bridge into the Cantonment. In the Cantonment, the nalla is covered and runs across one side of Allauddin Road. You wouldn’t know it if you stood there: the covered nulla is now a resplendent green belt in one of the most exclusive residential areas in Lahore.

The TEPA has spent over Rs100 million in remodelling the Mall Road/Zafar Ali Road area in violation of environmental laws, in order to provide automobile access to Gulberg V, to the urban elite whose children are chauffeur-driven to private schools there and who live there. Less than one in 10 Lahoris owns a car or travels in one to work. Yet over Rs100 million was spent, allegedly on development, in making roads for a small minority. From experience, we can expect this “widening” to be the source of innumerable traffic jams in the future. What kind of short-term elitist development is this?

Things wouldn’t be so bad if these millions and millions of rupees weren’t spent within eye shot of the katchi abadi further up from the Mall/Road Zafar Ali Road junction, towards Mian Mir. Here lower-income residents have no choice but to live over and next to the stinking refuse that flows through the Nulla. The methane and other noxious gases emitted from the raw sewage as it decomposes has led to high incidences of skin and respiratory disease as well as other ailments. The lower-income families of this abadi wind up spending more and more of their precious income on medicine and treatment when it could be going towards savings or matching rising commodity prices. This has been the condition of the abadi as far back as I can recall.

What is farcical is how urban planners in Lahore have managed to totally ignore the obvious difference covering the drain makes. Over in the Cantonment, covering the nulla has kept property prices up and sanitation levels high. But our urban planners would rather spend hundreds of millions of rupees on the minority automobile elite rather than investing the same amounts in public transport or, at the very least, meaningful programmes of beautification and upgrading. Imagine the health and lifestyle changes the TEPA could have done to the thousands who live in the abadi had it spent Rs100 million to cover the Zafar Ali Road nulla rather than widen the road next to it!

In more recent news, the chairman of the Chief Minister’s Task Force for Horticulture (an odd designation if ever there was one) announced that the provincial government is to grant the Parks and Horticulture Authority Rs100 million of taxpayer money to cover the Zafar Ali Road drain with “bamboo and banana saplings . . . motia . . . and raat ki raani” to “eliminate the stinking smell of sewage.” Again, this would be funny but for the fact that (i) the beautification is only going to be in front of the Gymkhana Club section of Zafar Ali Road (so that the Begum Sahibas cease swooning every time a pungent aroma wafts there on Tambola Night); and (ii) the PHA makes its own money. The week before, in three separate auctions of billboard sites in the city, the PHA fetched over Rs300 million. With billboard owners giving it so much money, one wonders why the PHA would need another Rs100 million of the public’s money to pay for the cost of an uplift project. But who would know. In its 10 years of existence, the PHA has never submitted legally mandatory annual budgets. In any event, the Rs300 million spent by billboard owners on permission to rent out billboard sites will be recovered from advertisers. The cost of advertising is eventually adjusted into corporate marketing and advertising budgets and passed on to the consumer. Us. Ah, the farce continues.

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:


Source: The News, 20/10/2008

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