by Ahmad Rafay Alam
This summer I was the lucky recipient of a very special birthday gift: a charter flight over Lahore. I recommend the experience to everyone, more so now, given the tale that is to tell.
While approaching the Walton Airport runway – Walton is Lahore’s original airstrip and is the home of the erstwhile Lahore Flying Club (est. 1930) – and about where our tiny single-propeller Cessna, the Suzuki Alto of the air, crossed Ferozepur Road, I noticed a very large ditch almost directly under the flight path.
The ditch is not actually just a ditch. It’s the foundations of the Mubaric Center (a.k.a. Sheikh Zayed Centre), the $1.2-billion real-estate joint venture between the Government of Punjab and the Abu Dhabi Group. According to a Wikipedia profile, the observation deck of Tower 1 will afford views of the nearby Golden Temple in Amritsar (“on clear days”). The tower’s total height will be, bless Allah, will be no less than a very patriotic 1947 feet.
I asked our pilot and co-pilot whether permission to build sky scrapers next to an airstrip approach path was normal. Apparently, it isn’t. Apparently, the standard operating procedure is to refer the matter to the local aviation authority for their permission. Apparently, our Civil Aviation Authority wasn’t informed of the Government of Punjab’s commercial enterprise on Ferozepur Road until it was too late.
That’s when the penny dropped. There was no way a $1.2-billion international government joint-venture was going to be thrown off course by a handful of Cessnas and a couple of flying clubs. Also, the army has Askari Housing on one side of the runway and the Air Force has its high-end Falcons’ Enclave on the other. A third side fronts Lahore’s Main Boulevard and is, according to reporter Abdul Sattar Khan writing in this newspaper (Jan 1), worth “billions of rupees” (“Punjab govt cancels plan for Walton land’s commercial use.” Obviously, the immense value of the acreage would make anyone who could claim title around the runway a very tidy windfall profit. The forces that shape our cities do not stand for sentimentality. Goodbye, Walton, I said as we disembarked.
There was a news report published in this paper on May 2 last year (“Many vie to grab prized Walton Aerodrome land”), which set out the facets of this conspiracy theory. Since then, Walton Airport has got little or no press coverage. That is, until last week.
Last week’s newspapers inform us that the Government of Punjab just cancelled the lease it had given the Civiil Aviation Authority over much of the Walton Airport’s hundreds of acreas. It seems the Government of Punjab has taken exception to the Civil Aviation Authority’s purported plans to relocate the flying clubs and Cessnas to the Allama Iqbal International Airport and use the remaining real estate for some commerical venture or the other. It seems the Government of Punjab has other plans for this prime real-estate.
According to the Secretary Colonies (interviewed by Abdul Sattar Khan), the “use of the land for commercial purposes is not necessarily the only option under . . . consideration, as there may be other choices under discussion, including the launch of public welfare projects like schools, hospitals and parks.” What a good idea. Meanwhile, I urge anyone who hasn’t to get a charter flight under their belt as soon as possible and as long as the flying clubs are still located at Walton.
There’s another 22 acres of land located just off Lahore’s Waris Road that could do with something new as well. In May of last year, the Ministry of Defence published invitations for bids for the Birdwood Barracks property, or Qila, and offered the property as “Prime Land Located in the Heart of Lahore.” Proceeds were to go towards financing the construction of the GHQ in Islamabad. But that plan was also scrapped late last year because, one assumes, it looks bad if the military goes on spending like it’s going out of style while the rest of the country faces electricity, gas, fuel and water shortages.
According to a jamabandi I have, this land belongs to the federal government and was leased to the Mehkma Infantry before 1925. A more recent Khasra Emarti corroborates this. Both mention that part of the land was to be used for parks. Our armed forces, no longer having any use for this land located in the heart of an older, more glorious, Lahore, decided to auction its leasehold rights for a reserve price of Rs500 million. Since this 22-acres was off the main road and surrounded by residential houses, no developer was willing to take the risk of investing in it, especially given today’s real-estate climate. It attracted no bidders and remains a vacant lot in the heart of the city.
A word about parks. Urban planning professionals I speak to often remind me that the necessary ingredients to a minimum level of habitation are housing, sanitation, employment, education and healthcare facilities. Without these ingredients, any human habitation will lose its vibrancy, become sterile and head towards blight, or worse. In the cities of today’s developing world, I will add another necessary ingredient: recreation. A human habitation is not liveable unless and until it provides its residents a reasonable amount of recreational facilities.
It is estimated that Lahore’s population is somewhere in the region of eight million. According to last year’s Punjab Economic Survey, half the people who live in our urban areas live in slums. Lahore may get off lucky in this one instance (its total slum dwelling are no more than 20 percent of the population), but consider the many millions who work and toil all day, returning home each night. For these voiceless millions, there are no public spaces, no museums, no art galleries, no affordable and clean restaurants, no golf & country clubs and very, very few parks. The Lahore parks and gardens were Colonial constructs that have been systematically dismantled by private sector forces and government negligence and inaction. For the voiceless millions, life is nothing but a commute from home to work and back; and that too through record levels of congestion, and air, sewage and noise pollution. It is not an enviable living.
The Chief Minister has been making noises, all reported in the press, of how his government will provide parks to the people of Lahore. These public parks are the recreational facilities that are needed to make this city more liveable and to create a sense of community. The Walton Airport property and the Birdwood Barracks both present him with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to create public parks in the centre of Lahore. Such opportunities will never come up in the future and the price of land prohibits the government acquiring it to build public parks.
Meanwhile, farewell Walton Airport. It is sad to see a city landmark offered up to sacrifice before the Powers That Be, but one has to look at the airport in the context of today’s city. Walton has ceased being relevant to today’s Lahore and will pay the ultimate price for doing so. Such changes are part of the natural evolution of a city. One just hopes that its memory can be properly preserved so that its role in the history of the city and country (it was the airstrip Muhammad Ali Jinnah used when he first arrived in an independent Lahore) can be preserved.
This article was previously published in The News