A five-member Supreme Court (SC) bench headed by Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan has decided to hold day-to-day hearings into the five identical appeals filed by the Punjab government, Lahore Development Authority, Punjab Mass Transit Authority and National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) against the Lahore High Court (LHC) August 19, 2016 suspension of construction work within 200 feet of 11 heritage sites along the route of the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) project in Lahore.
These sites are: Shalimar Gardens, Gulabi Bagh Gateway, Buddhu ka Awa, Chauburji, Zebunnisa’s tomb, Lakshmi Building, General Post Office, Aiwan-i-Auqaf, the SC’s Lahore registry, Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church and Baba Mauj Darya Bukhari’s shrine. On April 3, 2017, the SC observed that it was not averse to infrastructure development, but there can be no contravention of the law.
Heritage sites are protected under the Antiquities Act 1975 and the Punjab Special Premises Preservation Ordinance 1985. The government side pulled out all the stops, including a video documentary on the project, to convince the court that no damage to the sites had occurred during construction and constant monitoring would be carried out for damage due to vibrations during the operation of the OLMT.
Their counsel even went so far as to assure the court that if any damage did occur despite all these precautions, the sites would be “reconstructed”! Nothing betrays the government’s philistine attitude to cultural heritage better than this statement.
As it is, Empress Noor Jahan’s tomb in Lahore has been ‘reconstructed’ again and again! Not to mention the cavalier manner in which remodelling and paving of GT Road had destroyed the water fountain system of the Shalimar Gardens during Shahbaz Sharif’s first tenure as chief minister in the 1990s. It was left to Justice Azmat Saeed to point out to the government philistines that “Nations that preserve their past have a future.” Architect and civil society activist Kamil Khan Mumtaz had filed the original petition in the LHC that resulted in the stay order now being appealed in the SC.
The government’s counsel marshalled the technical and environment assessment reports produced by the government’s institutions (including some of the petitioners in the SC) to try and convince the court that all aspects had been looked at and revisited to ensure the heritage sites would be safe, including no visual impairment. Justice Azmat Saeed had to remind the government’s counsel that these assertions were contradicted by independent experts.
On October 14, 2016, the SC had appointed a commission comprising independent technical experts to re-verify NESPAK’s report on the vibrations issue, which had given the project a clean chit regarding these concerns. Professor Robin Coningham, one of the international experts on the commission, raised several objections to the NESPAK report, amongst which he had pointed out that the OLMT route contravened clause 22 of the Antiquities Act 1975 that prohibited construction within 200 feet of a protected immovable antiquity.
He had also underlined that the route flouted clause 23 of the same Act, which barred placing of neon signs, advertisements, signage, poles, etc, near such sites. The counsel for civil society brought to the notice of the court that the federal government was dragging its feet over providing visas to Unesco experts who wanted to visit the project. If the government is so confident it has nothing to hide, why this reluctance?
The government reverts again and again to the increased cost of any changes to the OLMT design and route. But surely this is a self-inflicted wound brought on by a hasty, ill-planned, driven by political and electoral considerations, oblivious of the value of heritage approach. The Punjab government is not known to brook dissent with any grace.
It is also guilty of either ignoring public sentiment or views about Lahore’s treatment, in which public hearings on major projects such as the OLMT are either conspicuous by their absence or perfunctory going through the motions for public consumption, after which the concerns of citizens are thrown into the dustbin. Lahore has already been raped by massive infrastructure projects such as road widening (no panacea for looming traffic gridlock), Metro Bus, road engineering that has not eased congestion, and now the OLMT that not only threatens our heritage, it has ridden roughshod over poor communities residing or having businesses in Lahore’s localities along the route with no adequate compensation.
Haste, as the old aphorism goes, makes waste. But the irresponsible manner in which the Punjab government uses public funds without caring a fig for citizens’ concerns is hardly a model of good, democratic governance.