A tale of two cities (Part I) by Ahmad Rafay Alam

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The chief minister of Punjab has requested NESPAK to come up with a way to widen Lahore’s canal road without cutting down any of the trees that line the only avenue of its kind in the world. Ostensibly, this is to cater to the increased congestion and automobile traffic that uses the now signal-free corridor through most of the city. The request made to NESPAK comes months after members of civil society were privately assured that the canal road widening plan would not be pursued by the Sharif government. Of course, NESPAK has no choice but to comply with the executive order it has received. For them, it is less of a study of whether the road can be widened and more of an exercise of how to get it done. One sympathises with the rock-and-hard-place NESPAK finds itself in, but the issue of the canal road widening needs to be understood within the context of the future of the city.

When the previous government attempted to widen the Canal Road, it was met with unexpected and unprecedented opposition from Lahoris keen to preserve one of the last jewels of its built heritage. The Lahore Canal was originally nothing but an irrigation channel diverted from the Ravi to feed the pleasure garden of Shalimar and bring life to Lahore’s first suburb: the Mughal-era’s Baghbanpura. The canal was later straightened and led to Head Bulloki by the English colonialist as part of their great effort to irrigate the Doab areas of Punjab. The canal system introduced by the Colonialists and its augmentation during Ayub Khan’s time must be given due credit. It was only by unleashing the potential of the fertile soil of Punjab did the Colonialist feed the belly of its Indian Empire; and the Green Revolution of the 1960s is the reason behind Ayub Khan’s “Golden Decade of Progress,” whatever that means. Make no mistake, the canal irrigation system of the Punjab is the most significant event ever to have taken place in South Asia.

Not fifty years ago, the Lahore canal was the outskirts of the city. Only the military Cantonment and an experiment in George Jacob Holyoake’s principle of cooperation, the Model Town, stood on its other side of its banks. Expanding city limits swallowed the canal up years ago and today the Lahore canal neatly bisects the city diagonally, from northeast to southwest. Its accidental place in the middle of the city – it is not so much a “natural” artery than one that has found itself in the right place at the wrong time – is due to the remarkable sprawling growth of Lahore. Because it was built as an irrigation canal, it is lined with eucalyptus (an unfortunate mistake in selection fuelled by the ridiculous notion that, as these trees were fast-growing, they could be used to bolster paper production in the country) and other trees and dominate its entire length. Today, the Lahore canal is a verdant break from the cement that has pervaded every other aspect of this city’s characteristics. And it is very much part of the soul of post-Partition Lahore.

It is precisely because Lahoris identify the canal with the green of their city – the last great public parks, the Race Course Park and Iqbal Town Park, were commissioned in the 1980s – that they reacted so fiercely to Chief Minister Perviaz Elahi’s ill-advised and ill-intentioned scheme to widen the canal to accommodate more traffic. The plan envisioned the canal as a high-speed artery that catered to the traffic from outside Lahore to the two new hotel and commercial shopping plazas to be built i) at the intersection of the Mall and canal; and ii) opposite Gaddafi Stadium on Ferozepur Road. This was not the development proud Lahoris wanted, and they let it be known. The Lahore Bachao Tehreek presented opposition seldom seen in civil society movements. Its voice carried enough of a bharak to send Pervaiz Elahi and the hubris of his juggernaut scrambling, ostensibly to fight another day.

Of course, no one doubts that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has the political power to steamroll any canal remodelling project, regardless of any public outcry, prudent urban planning policies or environmental and local laws that may offer resistance. That’s not the point. The point is whether wasting valuable political capital on this project will be prudent for the future of the city. Consider the following:

At Partition, the population of the city stood at approximately 800,000. Today, it is about 400 percent of that figure and stands at just below eight million. The UN estimates that the city will have a population of 15 million within the next decade. When Enrique Penalosa, the former Mayor of Bogota, came to Lahore in September, he estimated the city would grow to at least 25-30 million by 2030.

Private developers (and the DHA behemoth) moved in to take advantage of this great demand for housing. Their response has to provide expensive, sprawling, automobile-dependant and energy-inefficient housing to a gullible elite taken in with the specious observation that property never depreciates in value. Of course, speculative investments also acted to keep property prices (and file prices) artificially high. The low turnover in residential properties means it will be decades before we even begin to realise the affect speculation actually has on property prices. Two further points: i) None of this development catered to low-income families, by far the largest proportion of urban housing demand; and ii) this development is based on the profit to be made by the private developers – housing schemes are designed to sell as many units as possible, not to provide recreational space for its eventual inhabitants.

So widespread was this private development that, if one cares to compare the new and upcoming housing societies on a Google Earth map of the city, one will find: i) the footprint of the DHA Phases I through VIII is about the same as the footprint of the rest of the city; and ii) private housing schemes stretching southwards for miles and miles. As things stand, the Lahore canal will be nothing but a sliver on the northeast of the city by as early as 2030.

With the economy in tailspin, the private developers find themselves in a fix. Increasing costs of cement and steel have raised construction costs higher than were projected. The weak economy means that even those investors who sought to build on their plots (as opposed to investors who bought plots merely to trade and speculate in property) are delaying their plans until things look rosier. This means they must be finding further financing and purchasers harder and harder. One can understand if they have turned to the chief minister with a plea to widen the Canal Road. In their minds, the illusion of accessibility will keep their investments attractive to the public. They are mistaken, as it would be wiser for them to take the hit and wait out the economy for a couple of years. The demand for housing is not going away. But the demographic of the final resident is all set to change. Developers should be looking to accommodate these new circumstances. But most importantly, the chief minister should remain aware that spending previous development funds on the road-widening project will not do him any favours in the future.

(To be concluded)

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: ralam@nexlinx. net.pk



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