By Ahmad Rafay Alam
Several formalities need to be completed before Shabaz Sharif can once again assume the administration of this province. But this hasn’t deterred the former chief minister from letting all and sundry know that he’s back in town and that he means business. What this also means is that the previous government’s grip over the administration of the Punjab— a vice like noose that wound its way from halls of the secretariat, through every police station in the province and into the vaulted halls of the Lahore High Court— is slowly but surely loosening.
During the past few years few, if any, have uttered a word about the fate of the small triangular park that stood in the heart of Lahore’s leafy GOR-I residential district. Turning into the GOR at the intersection of the Mall and Davis Road, it stood outside the chief minister’s official residence and office. At some point this once round-a-bout was converted into a triangular “green” island. Then, to ward off the children, loiterers and die-hard cricketers a fountain was added to the middle of the island (It didn’t work: the marbled floor around the triangular fountain not only provided an year-round pitch, it gave local cricket enthusiasts three pitches instead of one.)
Regardless of whether or not any of these measures worked from keeping the great unwashed out of the line of vision of the high and mighty, the point is that this little bit of green in the middle of GOR— in front of the provincial chief executive’s nerve centre no less— was a park open to the public as a utility area. And even when over zealous policemen keeping watch at the CM’s office managed to chase away the children, loiterers and die-hard cricketers, the little island was another little example of the beauty tucked away in GOR.
It was during the middle of the Elahi government’s tenure that one heard that the chief minister was finally going to have a new and purpose-built secretariat. Until then, it was had been the sad lot of the Masonic Lodge on Charing Cross to be converted and used as the CM’s Secretariat. In actual fact, the premises of the chief minister’s office had reached its capacity years earlier, and it was Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif who had ordered the Masonic Lodge to its ignominious fate. At the time, some had argued that the lodge was better off as a museum (still a good idea, by the way), but the fact that the staff of the famously workaholic chief executive had to commute to and from the secretariat at the Lower Mall was making life hell. They needed a secretariat closer to the chief minister’s office. The lodge was nearby, and so it had to do. It seemed logical, then, for Chief Minister Elahi to seize the opportunity and construct a purpose-built secretariat as close as possible. In fact, the site chosen was no further than the other side of the little triangular park.
The new CM secretariat at 8 Golf Road has been a disaster of many proportions. To begin with— and I speak with no architectural credentials worth note— it is hideously hideously ugly. The only other architectural disaster to rival the raising of this pink and pillared beauty is the new gym building the Lahore Gymkhana commissioned, and which stands, embarrassingly naked for all to see and cringe at, at the intersection of the Mall and Zafar Ali Roads. In both these projects, architects were given a one-in-a-life-time opportunity to create landmarks the city could be proud of; something in the tradition of Lockwood Kipling, Bhai Ram Singh, Sir Ganga Ram and, a name I believe can now be mentioned along with these giants, Nayyar Ali Dada. In the GOR, an opportunity to build a government building that invites and does not repelled the public. In the Gymkhana, to match the wonders already standing on the Mall Road.
It’s only when these buildings are placed against this backdrop can the scale of the disappointment and embarrassment they represent to respectable Lahoris be understood The new CM Secretariat has no real parking facility. It has encroached onto whatever parking was offered for Friday prayers at the adjacent mosque. As a result, cars often encroach onto the road. Attendant traffic wardens stand by helpless as cars carrying visiting MPAs or district nazims park in ignorance of the large no parking signs or, worse, park on the sidewalk. The mess created in what was once a serene drive is there for anyone who cares to visit.
But that’s not the complaint. The complaint is that, in building this new secretariat, the powers that be thought it fit to enclose the small park/green island into the secretariat compound. Where commuters once passed by a public amenity area, they now face a massive 20 foot wall, as equally pink and pillared as the façade of new secretariat itself.
The fact that the powers that be thought they could do so is merely a mark of their hubris. When Queen Caroline asked Prime Minister Walpole what it would cost to enclose part of neighboring St. James’ Park into the premises of Buckingham Palace, he is reputed to have told her it would cost only a few crowns. The crowns of England, Scotland and Wales! Clearly, the previous administration was not inhibited by examples from the past.
There is a little known law passed, ironically enough, during the tenure of Chief Minister Shabaz Sharif. It’s called the Disposal of Land by Development Authorities (Regulation) Act, 1998. It prohibits Development Authorities like the LDA and the other development authorities responsible for urban development from converting amenity plots like the green island— now held hostage in the back garden of the CM secretariat compound— for any other purpose or use. Of course, those who currently enjoy the luxuries of government office will be the first to argue that the situation in GOR is different from the rest of Lahore; that security of such high-profile locations is of utmost importance; that the normal LDA rules do not apply in these circumstances. To all these arguments there is a simple rejoinder: You know it’s wrong to take a park away from the public. And wouldn’t it be nice for the new government to set itself apart from the previous administration by returning it to its rightful owners?
An longer version of this article appeared in The News
The picture is from Shuaib-y’si collection.