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Singing songs of destruction in Lahore

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– Ahmad Rafay Alam

The Lahore Development Authority placed advertisements in national dailies this week of its intention to widen the Canal Bank Road. The decision is another example of how people with good intentions but no relevant experience can lead a city down a path to disaster.

Lahore hit headlines last week, but for altogether the wrong reasons. It is now the most polluted city in the country. The emissions from industry and automobiles have rendered its air un-breathable. It has no waste-treatment plant, so all the raw sewage it produces is happily tossed into the River Ravi. And in the next twenty years, expect its population and size to double.

The scandalously pathetic attempts at population control make us the most prolific reproducers not just in South Asia; we also beat, hands down, the population growth rates of other notable contenders Kenya, Mexico, Brazil and Thailand. It’s predicted that by 2030-2050, our population will exceed 300 million. This population will be largely urbanised. At the moment, at 30 percent urbanisation, Pakistan is the most urbanised country in the region. In the next 10 years, urbanisation of the population is set to exceed 50 percent and is expected to peak, by 2030-2050, at 65 percent urbanisation.

These predictions mean that Pakistan’s urban centres are going to have to supply the influx of people with space for housing and strong building regulations for their habitats. Their local government agencies will have to provide sanitation and waste treatment facilities at a rate and scale that has never been experienced. Their local economies have to be strong enough to absorb the influx and provide it with job opportunities. There will have to be enough schools to educate the children of the influx and enough medical facilities and hospitals to care for its sick, elderly and disabled. And, of course, the urban centres will have to provide the influx – which will be overwhelmingly poor – with public recreational facilities every society needs to be healthy.

That is the picture of the challenges of the not-so-distant future. Of course, these challenges are made more complicated by (unavoidable) climate change and continuous (but avoidable) political instability. It is a future that my generation will have to live through. Its challenges are my – our – challenges. Now, let us take a glimpse of urban living today.

The 2005 Punjab economic survey stated that roughly half the population of urban Punjab lives in slums, or katchi abadis. These figures vary from city to city. Lahore is relatively lucky: for a city in a developing country, less than 15 percent of its population is forced to live in slums or katchi abadis (as compared to Karachi, where Arif Hasan once told me that nearly 70 percent of the population was slum-dwelling).

Slums, however, are not the problem. Every developing city has at least one. Slums are not indicators of poverty so much as they are indicators of the failure of city fathers to estimate the future needs of their city. Slums are, in fact, places of great human and commercial activity. It’s just that don’t have the same water, sewage, electricity utilities, and space, found in places like a Defence housing colony. If it weren’t for the slums, our cities wouldn’t have the people that make, for instance, Karachi the commercial capital of the country. (The same is true of the slum populations and economies of Lagos, Mumbai, Calcutta, Sao Paulo or any other thriving third world city.)

No, slums are not the problem. What is the problem is the fact that our cities are not being planned for the future. Our cities are being planned to favour the elite and to favour foreign investment. They are designed with thoughts of London or New York in mind. They are designed and planned, in other words, without a thought to the reality that Pakistan is not an economic giant. It is not a place five-star hotel chains want to set up business. Its cities are not places where everyone will live in little bungalows, eat food prepared in the cooking oil ads we see on TV, and drive leased automobiles.

Energy should be the reality check. Currently, this country has an installed capacity to produce close to 20,000MW of electricity. I should point out that, immediately, one full quarter electricity generated is lost by an outdated and inefficient transmission and distribution grid system. We all know that we don’t have enough electricity. Meanwhile, the Planning Commission in Islamabad has estimated that, in order for Pakistan to reach its “Vision 2020” and beyond, it will need 164,000MW of electricity by 2030. I ask any of my readers to try and imagine where this installed capacity will come from between now and then. Where will the electricity come from to let a child stay up at night to prepare for an exam, let alone power a high-rise building.

It should be clear that the our cities are being designed not on the basis of reality, but on the basis of a utopia sold to the powers that be to protect their limited vested interests.

Back to Lahore, where one-third of the population of the city lives in over two-thirds of its landmass. Private and public housing schemes alike have thrown to the wind the notion that urban living is high-density living, and have put Lahore on the path leading to the grim vortex of sprawling suburbia. Without public transport, which the city does not have, and–given the paltry investments being made in public transport as compared to huge investments planned for private-automobile driven infrastructure development–is not likely to have, the future of Lahore is bleak.

The future Lahore will maintain the same ratio of population to landmass, if not make it more acute. That means the abundant poor will live in squalor while the rich few will have their energy-guzzling bungalows and exhaust-spewing automobiles. Sprawl-induced automobile traffic will choke the city’s roads and pollute its air. The untreated waste of millions upon millions of residents will continue to be thrown, without care, into the River Ravi. (I suggest that, some time in the future, we change its name so that the memory of this once mighty river not be tarnished with what the city of Lahore is doing to it.)

It is in this context I want to look at the investment being planned to widen the Canal Bank Road. While the government should be planning to upgrade the sanitation services for its current residents; while it should be planning on spending billions on public transport; while it should be favouring energy-efficient and high-density buildings; while it should be planning to improve the quality of life of millions of Lahoris, it is planning to spend close to a billion rupees on a road that will not only rob this city of a landmark of its heritage, it will favour only the paltry elite that has access to the automobile. Has it no compassion? How can it willingly lead this city on a path to destruction while all the time singing songs of development?

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.


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