The long road to ecological justice

We are posting this article by Ahmad Rafay Alam originally published in daily Dawn. In this article, Alam critically evaluates judicial proceedings with respect to the Lahore Canal Road project. The writer urges the government not to squander the heritage of the city for the “.. Canal Heritage Park is part of the Lahori psyche, as much as the Walled City, the Shalimar Gardens or halva puri. Civil Society must understand that as long as the city grows, pressures to sacrifice our heritage must be forever guarded against. The battle is and will remain ongoing…”  

LahoreCANALBefore parting with this judgment, we would like to acknowledge the admirable spirit demonstrated by petitioners’ organization, by those individuals, architects, urban planners, academics and students for protection of city’s ecological and environmental horizons. During hearing of this case, the Court was touched by the rainbow of idealism, of intellect, of architectural ability, of urban development and mental health expertise of graces and youthful exuberance… As long as this spirit is alive, we are sanguine, the authorities and the leadership would continue to be guided by the values of sustainable human and urban development.

— Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, in SMC No. 25 of 2009

Following the September 2011 decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Lahore Canal Road widening case (SMC No. 25 of 2009), the Government of Punjab wasted no time in cutting down trees to widen the road along the green belt for a stretch of the Lahore Canal. Many could be forgiven in thinking there was little other in the judgment of the Court, but they would be wrong. The widening of a limited stretch of road along the Lahore Canal was only one of 10 directions the Court had given. The first was that the entire length of the Lahore Canal and its green belt “shall be treated as a Heritage Urban Park forthwith and declared so by an Act to be passed by the Assembly…”The Punjab Assembly’s Standing Committee on Housing, Urban Development and Public Health Engineering held hearings in December 2012 where representatives of the Lahore Conservation Society, Lahore Bachao Tehreek and WWF-Pakistan provided input to the draft legislation prepared by the Government of Punjab. Although the law was being prepared in pursuance of the Court’s judgment, there were reservations against the draft, which allowed the Government of Punjab carte blanche, especially on the controversial issue of more infrastructure development along the Canal. Despite these reservations, the Lahore Canal Heritage Park Act, 2013 was passed on 14 January 2013, making it the first urban and heritage park legislation in Pakistan (other parks are protected by notification). It is also a major success for civil society in Lahore and Pakistan. How often can a civil society movement anywhere lay claim to have traversed the full spectrum of activism: from protest and advocacy to legislation and policy?

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The preamble to the Act provides “Whereas the Lahore canal and the green belts on both sides of the canal is a public trust and is part of the heritage of the city of Lahore; therefore, it is expedient to make provisions for the maintenance of a salubrious environment and conservation of the Lahore Canal as a heritage park; to preserve the flora and fauna of this heritage park; and to provide for ancillary matters.” The maintenance of the Heritage Park has been made the responsibility of the Parks and Horticulture Authority and an Advisory Committee established to advise the PHA on upkeep and maintenance.

The Act prohibits the construction on infrastructure, felling or damage of or to trees, pollution of water, hunting and use of firearms in the Heritage Park, but allows the PHA to give permission to any of these prohibited acts provided a list of criterion are met.

The Advisory Committee comprises nominees of government departments and civil society. The membership of the Advisory Committee was designed to ensure continuing civil society participation in decisions that would affect the Lahore Canal. However, by allowing the PHA the power to override the decisions of the Advisory Committee, the Act fails to properly value this participation.

The Advisory Committee has so far met thrice and has proposed rules of procedure for itself, has directed the delineation of the boundaries of the Heritage Park and is planning a tree master plan for the park. Once its rules of procedure are set, the Advisory Committee will be in a position to undertake initiatives in the Heritage Park.

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What has been surprising was the request, recently made at the 3rd meeting of the Advisory Committee, to consider a proposal for additional road-widening and three U-turns along the Canal. The Committee was told such an initiative would improve traffic congestion. However, I have my doubts. If the road widening of last year now requires another Rs. 400 million of infrastructure to “reduce traffic congestion” and Lahore still does not have a traffic or urban Master Plan, then there is grave risk that an ad-hoc initiative will be at the cost of legally protected heritage.

Civil Society must understand that the growth and development of Lahore will forever remain ongoing. What is important is that we give back to the city something that our children and their children can hold as heritage. The Canal Heritage Park is part of the Lahori psyche, as much as the Walled City, the Shalimar Gardens or halva puri. Civil Society must understand that as long as the city grows, pressures to sacrifice our heritage must be forever guarded against. The battle is and will remain ongoing.

The writer is a partner at Saleem, Alam & Company, and member of the Lahore Canal Heritage Park Committee

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