The strange case of Lahore’s Doongi ground


rafay-alam1Ahmad Rafay Alam
In addressing the problems of the city of Lahore Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif commissioned several task forces to provide immediate solutions. So far this year, the task force on commercialisation has put an end to the LDA’s city-destroying practice of permitting commercial activity in residential areas. The task force on billboard advertising reform has had its recommendations put into practice and several hundred of those unsightly, unsafe and intrusive forms of graft revenue have been dismantled. This measure, in particular, should be appreciated as it indicates that there are urban forces at work in this city that do not measure success by profit alone. The city looks all the better for it as well.

The task force on public transport has recommended a bus rapid-transport model at par with anything else on offer in the developing world. One hopes the special-purpose vehicle – a company authorised by a proposed amendment in the Motor Vehicles Ordinance – does what it’s supposed to. Given the vast city sprawl decades of automobile-dependent urban planning has created, public transport (and waste management) is this city’s salvation from a grim and polluted future. This proposed company must not think that a mere 4,000 buses in the next five years is a solution. In 15 years, Lahore will be twice the size it is and twice as populated. The proposed company has to think big. Its vision of the future must be closer to 15,000 buses.

The proposed public transport company will assume monopoly over all the public transport routes in the city and end the current route franchise system – just like the model so successfully used in Curitiba and Bogota. One also hopes that The Powers That Be don’t go all Post-Colonial and give the proposed BRT system an English, or “Western,” name. The customers of this future bus service will all be proud Lahoris. Why not give them a transport system with a name they can identify with.

The task force on road rehabilitation and beautification has begun the difficult task of “removing” encroachments. This is a bold enforcement of the law that, despite its unpleasant tactics, angry crowds and ultimate futility, reveals powerful political will. And although it seems that it’s only the Mall Road that is being beautified, one hasn’t seen the PHA work with such vigour before. If there was one public body that needed a fire put under their backsides, it was the PHA. Their worried hurry makes the cockles of the heart glow warm these winter days.

The task force on climate change does not seem to have been up to much, but last week’s papers reported that the chief minister had met the federal minister of environment and chalked out a plan of raising much-needed awareness for 2009, which is to be celebrated by the federal government as the Year of the Environment. Environment and climate change are areas which, as guardians of the bread basket of the country, the government of Punjab cannot ignore any longer.

The task force charged with the responsibility of finding a solution to the problem commonly referred to as “the Doongi Ground” hasn’t done much either. In some ways, the inability of this task force to come up with a way out of the colossal screw-up left by the previous government is understandable. If the previous government hadn’t gone and illegally converted land used as a public park into commercial property, if it hadn’t gone and decided to build an I-MAX cinema (of all things!) on the site, if it hadn’t failed to carry out an EIA of the project, if it hadn’t spent millions rupees on the purchase of film projectors and never taken possession of them, if it hadn’t of created a special “Punjab Entertainment Company” and given it public money to operate, if it hadn’t appointed officers of the bureaucracy as shareholders of this company in their personal capacities, then maybe this task force’s job would have been easier. But the previous government of Punjab did all of these things, and reportedly spent about Rs800 million on the construction of a building that was subsequently stopped by decree of the Lahore High Court.

Not only does the task force have to find a workable solution to this problem from amongst its own members, it has to pass it through the scrutiny of the Lahore High Court – where litigation on the matter is pending – and has to obtain the consent of the petitioners prosecuting their public-interest litigation. Talk about a tall order.

So far, the task force has come up with no solid recommendation. This is not the type of result the chief minister expects and may be the reason he reportedly handed out to the information secretary a public tongue-lashing and suspension.

The task force must do a few simple things that will inform the decisions it has to make. First, it has to hire a structural engineer to examine the cement structure that has been hulking on the Doongi Ground the last few years, open to the elements. If the building is unsafe for use, there is simply no debate about trying to use it for a cinema, a library, a covered playground or a parking lot. The question is moot until a certificate of structural integrity is issued. If the building is unsafe, then the “too-big-to-fail” attitude must be put aside and the entire structure scrapped.

The task force must also commission a joint study by WASA and urban planning experts. The Doongi Ground is located on one end of the most expensive commercial real estate in the city, M M Alam Road, and gets its name from the fact that it was “doongi,” or sunken, because it was the engineering solution to the storm water drainage of the area. In fact, most of the Lahore Improvement Trust’s urban plans employed doongi grounds to avoid the cost involved in laying storm-water drains all over the city.

The task force needs to find out whether the use of this storm-water drainage catchment for any other purpose will have an affect on the surrounding area’s ability to channel away rainwater every Monsoon season. There’s no point putting the Doongi Ground into some other use if it means everything on M M Alam Road will sink whenever it rains heavily. The task force must ensure that its decision does not devalue the commercial activity of the area.

If possible, as an alternative, the task force should consider greening the entire M M Alam Road. The existing road should be ripped out and replaced by a mile-long public park. The PHA should be charged with carrying out tree transplantation and providing shade and park benches along the entire stretch of the road. The secondary road network between M M Alam Road and Guru Maangar Road on the one side and the Main Boulevard on the other should be enhanced to withstand parking. The result will be a cleaner, noiseless environment where no shopping venue or restaurant is more than a five-minute walk. A tram system like the one along Istanbul’s Taksim Sqaure can take people along the span of the park. The open park space is also a perfect rainwater absorber.

The task force should consider this idea. Other cities in the world are increasingly looking to greening urban areas as a means of raising the quality of life in and property prices of an area. If it does so, Lahore can take a place among other cities in the world taking bold urban planning measures to ensure a cleaner tomorrow.

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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