Skewed urban development agenda

by Ahmad Rafay Alam (from the NEWS)

The priority given to different urban development projects strikes me as odd. Given the extensive road development work seen in Lahore during the tenure of the previous provincial government, it would appear that inner-city mobility was considered key to the city’s future. The billions in foreign development assistance spent upgrading transport infrastructure stands in stark contrast to the opinion, expressed by many a citizen and almost every elected local government official, that the most pressing issue facing the city of Lahore today is solid-waste management. And yet, at the same time, the amounts spent on upgrading the sewerage system of the city pale in comparison to those spent to accommodate private automobile owners.

Why is there such a discrepancy between the urban development people want to see and the urban development they get? A look at the institutions that are responsible for the urban planning and development of the city and the financial and administrative control they wield offers an answer to this very perplexing question.

Lahore — and by Lahore I do not mean the Defence and the civilianised cantonment areas of the city, for they are independent of and operate outside the Local Government Ordinance — is managed by the LDA, the City District Government and the nine Town Municipal Administrations. Where the responsibility of one ends and the other begins is anyone’s guess. But there is more to this confusion than meets the eye.

The City District Government of Lahore estimates its own receipts for 2007-2008 at Rs773 million. However, the City District Government will not be short of cash: it’s slated to receive Rs7.29 billion in the form of provincial government receipts. The City District Government receives money in other ways as well (its estimated receipts for the year are in the region of Rs14.12 billion), but the lion’s share of the pie — approximately 50 per cent — comes from the generous hand of the provincial government. It shouldn’t be difficult to figure out that it’s the hand that controls the money that controls the agenda for urban planning in Lahore.

The LDA, on the other hand, makes its money two ways: by developing and selling land and by recovering fines, penalties, commercialisation fees and its share of urban immovable property tax. Its 2007-2008 estimate of receipts is Rs2.35 billion. The LDA is an independent body corporate established under the Lahore Development of City Act, 1975, and so it should be that it has free hand to invest these receipts in projects the citizen’s of Lahore cry out for. Think again. While the Nazim of the City District of Lahore may be the ex officio chairman and the Town Nazims all ostensibly members of the LDA’s board, the Act provides that the Board also consist of a director general, four ex officio representatives from provincial government departments, the DCO of Lahore and the bureaucratic heads of the LDA’s two agencies, the WASA and the TEPA. In effect, then, the democratically elected voice on the board is muted by minds that obey the writ of the provincial government. When I went to claim a copy of the LDA’s budget estimates for this financial year, I was first told by a nervous peon that they were not available to the public. When pressed, he informed me that, in fact, the estimates could not be made public until the LDA’s budget summary was approved by the chief minister.

In these circumstances, then, with the decentralisation of financial and administrative authority effectively stunted, it isn’t difficult to understand why urban planning in Lahore isn’t a ground up enterprise — that is, it is not based on an agenda set by the citizens and residents of the city. Despite the high-minded goals of the Punjab Local Government Ordinance, 2001, the management and control of the city — and others throughout Punjab and the rest of the country — remains a matter very much controlled by the provincial government. So if the provincial government chooses to build roads over enhancing the sewerage infrastructure of the city, that’s the way things will be.

This weakness of the system doesn’t end here. Lahore is also governed by nine different and legally independent Town Municipal Administrations. Other than collecting their share of the property tax collected from properties within their jurisdictions, these legally independent governing bodies generate precious little revenue of their own. Take the Gulberg Town Municipal Administration, for example. Gulberg is considered one of Lahore’s better residential districts and, in recent years, has been groomed to become the new financial and commercial hub of the city. Yet, despite it being one of the richest and most highly developed parts of the city (and the city the 2nd largest in the country), it managed to raise only Rs108 million during the 2005-2006 financial year. And most of this income (Rs71 million, to be precise) came from the property and other taxes it is legally entitled to receive. In other words, the richest part of the city made no money of its own to speak of. And because the Gulberg Town Administration is broke, it has to look to the City District Government or the provincial government for handouts to carry out any substantial development work. A visit to Gulberg Town’s website reveals it received an additional Rs20 million as provincial government grants from former chief minister Pervaiz Elahi. It isn’t surprising that Rs17 million of these grants went to re-carpeting of roads. The rest went to repairing street lights. No money was spent on solid-waste management. Clearly, another reason the urban development agenda of the city is so remarkably askew is that the lower tiers of the local government system are not allowed the financial freedom due to them logically and under the law.

The fact is that it is the provincial government and the provincially controlled LDA that hog most of the money due to the local governments. Take, for instance, scrutiny and building approval and commercialisation fees. Last year, 31 per cent of the LDA’s receipts — amounting to well over Rs700 million — came from the collection of fines, penalties and commercialisation fees. But where does the LDA claim authority to collect these amounts? Under the Local Government Ordinance (see ss. 51, 54 and 54-A) it is the responsibility of the Town Municipal Administrations to “exercise control over land use . . . land development and zoning.” They also have legal authority to propose and collect taxes and fees for the approval of building plans and to enforce municipal bye laws. In the presence of such clear mandate, it is illogical that the LDA continues to collect these taxes. They should be the revenue of the Town Municipal Administrations and should be spent on the clearly enunciated needs of the people living in the given town.

The voices of the people demanding better sewerage facilities seldom reach the rarefied air of the provincial government. They are, on the one hand, resoundingly heard closer to the ground at the level of the local government administration. Also, the provincially administered Parks and Horticulture Authority, which last year collected an estimated Rs350 million in advertising taxes last year, has no authority under the PLGO to levy and collect such money. This sum rightfully belongs to the local governments which will spend it, instead of on watering the fauna of the GOR with clean and increasingly precious drinking water, perhaps to upgrade the sewerage facilities so urgently needed.

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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One response to “Skewed urban development agenda

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Pakistan: Urban Development

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