Today, I’m posting my column as it appeared in The News:
Behind Lahore’s worsening crisis
Since the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team at Lahore’s Liberty Market, nothing seems to make sense anymore. The country and its people appear to be drifting to anarchy and chaos. There is deep political crisis. The presidency has stolen the mandate of the people of Punjab and the Swat peace deal is crumbling at its foundations. A Pakistani Taliban is taking over the northern regions. The economy is in deep slide (getting more IFI financing is not the same as a dynamic economy). Poverty is near 40 percent, and violence, intolerance and extremism are on the rise. Government institutions have failed; others are crumbling fast. The integrity of our armed forces is under question. Even cricket is dead.
We can scream blue murder because it’s broken. We can try and blame one another for breaking it. Or we can set about fixing it. You don’t need to be a genius to do this; or be a natural-born leader of men. You just need to participate. This is our mess. We need to clean it up.
Now is time to make sense of this mess. To fight the stupidity, we need to be smarter. Yet to fight the intolerance, we must be intolerant ourselves. Intolerant of compromise. Now more than ever is the time to live to the highest standards and to reject anything that falls below them.
Last week, the Lahore Development Authority announced the launch of two new housing schemes in the south and south-eastern peri-urban areas of the city. The first scheme will cover 25,000 kanals. The other reportedly covers a staggering 225,000 kanals. I haven’t been able to consult accurate conversion tables (these figures don’t appear right, and here I am referring to Yasir Habib’s article in The Nation of March 23), but if my estimates are correct, these developments will swamp Lahore’s existing 1,772 square kilometres. An estimated 210,000 plots will be carved out.
The need for housing in Lahore is acute. At the moment, there are some eight million people who live in this city. By 2025, there may be as many as 25 million. So far, the LDA’s response seems reasonable: to carry out its mandate to develop the city for the future. But there are other, crucial, aspects of these schemes that need to be understood before any final evaluation can be made.
Under the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act, 1997, schemes like these must pass through an environment-impact assessment. Of course, things being the way they are, with our laws are not respected, least by government agencies, none of the housing schemes of the past several years – including the two schemes I’ve mentioned above – have ever conducted an environment assessment. But if one can get over this violation of mandatory provisions of law, let’s see what an EIA for the LDA projects would say.
Any EIA of urban planning projects, especially ones on the outskirts of a city, begins with considering the effects the development will have on the existing peri-urban areas. Tragic experience tells us – and I refer to the Charrar pind in the middle of Lahore’s DHA as one example – that peri-urban communities are first deprived of agricultural land and, hence, their livelihood. The notion that compensation from the acquisition is somehow equitable is totally facile. Some are engaged as unskilled labour for the development that will follow. If anyone can drive or use his hands, they might be lucky enough to find work as a driver or gardener. With their men out of work, the women of these areas seek employment as domestic servants. And then comes the gradual criminalisation of the settlement as its once-rustic setting has no place in the middle of the new urban development.
The story of Lahore is, in many respects, the story of the engulfment of villages. Ichchra, Mozang, Mian Mir, Guru Mangat and Bhekewal are familiar to many. But there are literally dozens of settlements that have suffered the juggernaut of urbanisation and there are plenty more that will suffer. The LDA’s new schemes will eat up 11 villages.
I’ve been to some of the villages that fall within the LDA’s plans. Their state is miserable. They have no sanitation and sewerage, so their common lands have become cesspits. There are almost no schools, and the children there can scarcely afford the fees of the private institutions that are cropping up in some of the more upscale private housing schemes nearby. There is no hope for the people of these villages. They are destined to remain poor and illiterate. Simply no hope. The urban development plans and schemes of the past have never done anything about this.
The plots that will be built on the quarter of a million kanals of land will all be energy-inefficient. The LDA’s current building regulations make no provision for energy efficiency. Given that buildings consume as much as 60 percent of all the energy produced in the world; and given that Pakistan’s largest known source of electricity this moment lies in conservation, it is nothing short of criminally negligent that the nearly quarter of a million homes that are planned in this area will be energy-wasteful. They will be made of cement and bricks that literally addict a homeowner to air-conditioners in the summer and gas and electric heaters in the winter.
The residents of these new developments – being that they are miles from the primary industrial, commercial, government, education and recreation hubs of the city – will also be automobile-dependant. Because there hasn’t been any investment – not a rupee – in public transport over the past decade, driving private automobiles the many miles to work, school and home every day is a hidden cost seldom, if ever, factored into the cost of building and living in a suburban home. The automobiles will pollute, only worsening the air quality of the city. I need not discuss what will happen to the traffic congestion
Sanitation will also be an issue, but since some of the development is located along the Hadiyara drain, it should be manageable. What won’t be manageable is the disease that will spread among the communities unfortunate enough to live close to the city’s largest and most polluted sewer. The uncovered Hadiyara drain flows at 512 cusecs with a Biological Official Demand of 120mg/l (anything over 80mg/l means no biological life form can survive in the flow). I can only imagine what an EIA of an urban development project along an open sewer would say.
The disastrous effects of suburban sprawl are being understood by more and more people around the world. It is now well established that money spent on urban sprawl is wasteful and, in the long term, winds up costing more. In some parts of the world, suburban communities have collapsed and the New Urbanism movement sees them moving back to small, sustainable cities.
In Lahore and in the rest of our urban areas, we need to stop the sprawl. We can do this by investing in secondary cities. We can take the load off our two or three industrial cities and attract sustainable industry to secondary and tertiary cities. We can do this by imposing and enforcing city limits and by offering specialised and competitive industry incentives to invest in smaller cities. City limits will also deprive developers – the LDA included – of the obscene profits involved in buying agricultural land cheap and then offering it as residential housing. Smaller, sustainable cities also don’t require large sources of energy. Smaller cities require less electricity and won’t need dams or expensive thermal power stations (that need costly and polluting fossil fuels) to operate.
The LDA template of sprawl development is not to the high standards I expect from my public authorities. In fact, the LDA/local government dispute is, in some ways, responsible for the alleged grounds quoted by the governor when he advised the president to deprive the people of Punjab of their fundamental right to participate in the affairs of this republic. I will not shout myself hoarse over this. I will participate. I am going to file a complaint against the LDA’s proposed development before the Environment Protection Agency of Punjab. God knows if it amounts to a cent, but even if it doesn’t, expect me to participate in the process. It’s the only way I know to make sense of the chaos. God bless Pakistan.