What do sanitation, health and air pollution have to do with the Canal Road? Let me explain. In order to even be considered as having safe habitation for its residents, a city must also provide sanitation and health facilities. They are like two sides of the same coin. Without good sanitation and health facilities you cannot be said to have safe habitats. At the moment, Lahore is very lucky. Although the P&D Department of the Government of Punjab issued a report in which it admitted that half of urban Punjabis live in slums and katchi abadis, Lahore is a relatively well-designed city with a relatively lower percentage of its residents living in squalor. But this is set to change. In the next two decades, if our sanitation, health and air quality do not improve, this city will become unliveable. It will stretch from Shahdara to the north-east to the Indian border on the west and halfway to Kasur to the south-west. But, as things stand, most of this area has already been taken over, plotted up and sold by private real-estate developers. By the time the next twenty million people pour into Lahore, these areas – automobile-dependant and without a single environment impact assessment or mitigation measure between them – will be choking under the weight of the urban necropolis they have become part of.
We need great sewerage, health and air pollution standards today. We need them now, because we won’t have them twenty years from now. But as things stand, this is not going to happen if all the money available is being spent on roads and for the benefit of the 15 percent of the population that’s affluent enough to own and drive cars.
This year, the total provincial government allocation for health services and public health came to a little over Rs13.6 billion. If one throws in the allocation for public education, Rs22.5 billion, we still haven’t got to the whopping Rs45.48 billion set aside for roads in bridges and education come to some Rs36 billion for FY 2008-2009. The total allocation for roads and bridges stood at Rs45.5 billion for FY 2008-2009. As long as our rulers throw billions of rupees into selective, elitist, sprawl-inducing, polluting, and inequitable development, it will never have money to hire the food inspectors, sanitation workers, doctors and other staff necessary to keep this place going.
In Lahore, the Parwaiz Ilahi government spent over Rs2 billion on providing underpasses along the Canal Road. This money spent has not increased the quality of life of the residents of Shad Bagh, Wasanpura, Chah Miran, Baghbanpura or Daroghwala – all localities of north Lahore – which are over congested and which flood with water every monsoon. The billions the chief minister spent during his last term in office on road-widening works are plain for all to see. The roads that were supposed to “solve” traffic congestion are useless against the hundreds of cars we throw onto our roads every single day. None of that money improved the sewerage system around the Do Moria Pul, which is why he was photographed this monsoon, knee deep in storm water that had nowhere to go. Elsewhere, on Gulberg’s Main Boulevard, which the chief minister had widened a decade ago, water flowed out from the median which was supposed to store it and blocked two of the three lanes. The billions spent then didn’t improve the quality of life of anyone this Barsaat. Lahori’s living north of Shalimar Link Road don’t have a formal sewage system. Road-widening works mean nothing to them. The residents of Sabzazar who, until recently, had to deal with manure blocking their drains (their redemption was entirely their own doing), did not see or appreciate any of that road-widening money either.
The chief minister of Punjab must realise that he can order NESPAK or some other traffic engineering geniuses to come up with a cunning way of widening the Canal Road for more cars. But he must realise that, in doing so, he is condemning his city to a bleak future. Even if the Canal Road is widened, it will be choked by traffic in the next decade. None of the money spent on it will see improvements in the lifestyles of Lahoris. What the chief minister does risk, however, is alienating his core constituencies in the city: the trading class and the Kashmiri and Arain biradaris of north of the canal. If the canal is widened, in 15 years it will represent the great social inequality in the city: a polluted, congested, filthy Lahore on one side of the canal and an automobile-dependant, planned, elite Lahore on the other. This is not the recipe for a healthy future and the chief minister risks his legacy on this decision.
An alternative for the chief minister is to mark the Lahore canal as a turning point in the development of the city. The chief minister should place a moratorium on all spending on traffic infrastructure and divert equivalent sums into a public transport system. The vision of Lahore 2030 should be a garden city where public transport gets the rich and poor to work and play on time and in style. The chief minister should announce that the Lahore canal is the city’s next great public park and make sure that the money spent on the development of the city is spent ensuring the vision becomes a reality. That every Sunday from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. it will be closed to traffic and open to anyone with who wants to walk or play there with their friends and family. The needs of private interests must be made subservient to the public good. The economy of the city will not be dampened, only the lifestyle of the rich and pampered. The Lahori gumption that breathed life into this broken city in 1947 will save it. The spirit of Lahore, best exemplified in the people of Shad Bagh, who built their own sewerage system with their own hands in the early 1950s, will continue to thrive. And as long as it breathes, this city will remain great. The expert members of the Lahore Bachao Tehreek are ready and willing to meet with the chief minister and to give his team options to implement this vision. The canal is a great opportunity to bring this city back to life, to give it a new jewel to wear on its crown.
By making such a signal, the chief minister can change the future of this city. He can herald a dedication to a new template of urban development. Development for all the people rather than just the rich. He has the power and the choice to let this city become another one of South Asia’s failed megalopolis or to grab it by the scruff of the neck and teach it to become a more liveable human space. The future of Lahore is a tale of two cities, and the chief minister knows exactly which city he would like his beloved Lahore to become.
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-