First published in The News
The government of Punjab has just announced the sale of hundreds of acres of “redundant” state land in Lahore. The properties proposed to be put on the auction block include the Governor’s House, the official residences of the chief justice of the Lahore High Court, the commissioner of Lahore and the district coordination officer of Lahore.
Normally, one would have got on their feet and cheered the news of a decision taking on these relics of Colonial Imperialism now enjoyed by a select few that, in all other things but skin colour, are mirrors of our previous masters. But the reasons for this “loot sale” reveal mismanagement of such proportions that one cannot but put sentiments aside and ask: what on earth is going on?
The government has reportedly chosen to take this step because it is seriously strapped for cash. The sale of these properties are meant to fetch the government approximately Rs30 billion. Again, the windfall from the constructive use of such properties would normally earn the decision widespread approval. But remember, monuments of Colonial imperialism or not, some of these properties are masterpieces of architecture and design that deserve more than the treatment they are going to get.
Because of recklessly subsidising atta (flour) and opting for seriously questionable development schemes (of which the proposed Canal Road widening project in Lahore for Rs3 billion and overhead expressway along Murree Road in Rawalpindi for another Rs13 billion are examples), the government of Punjab’s overdraft is hovering somewhere in the region of Rs20 billion. The State Bank’s expenditure limit is Rs27 billion.
However, the government owes Rs14 billion to make pension and other payments (like Eid allowances). What the government of Punjab is facing is a financial crisis. And it plans to get out of it by selling the family jewels.
Fair enough. Challenging circumstances call for leadership and the ability to make difficult decisions. But the current leadership isn’t providing for a way out. It is selling some of the most historically significant and beautiful properties in the city (and, in the process, I may add, disposing of hundreds of acres of environmentally important greenery that is the characteristic of the area). The government of Punjab isn’t telling us what it plans to do next. If it continues with its current course and trajectory, we will be looking at a similar financial situation in another year or two. Only then, there won’t be any family jewels left to sell. What then?
The government of Punjab isn’t the only town-planning authority that’s taking some seriously questionable decision. In Islamabad, the Capital Development Authority has announced that it intends to raise Rs40 billion by announcing the award of a “Vertical City” project in Sector I-5 in the near future. It has also announced that it intends to spend around Rs3 billion for the construction of 106 luxury lodges for members of parliament and some 500 servant quarters to accommodate the servants and miscellaneous retinue of said members of parliament. I mention this expenditure because, as of today (1) Islamabad is probably the only capital city in the world that doesn’t have a public transport system; and (2) the drinking water in Islamabad is fast running out.
Normally, problems of the type the CDA is facing can be dealt with by competent administrators. However, the recently announced list of people who benefited from the National Reconciliation Ordinance, 2007, include some 14 officials who served in the CDA over various periods. One can only questions the professional competence of an organisation that produces such graduates. (The same is true of the National Assembly and the civil service of Pakistan.)
The state of Pakistani cities is dire. Already, an estimated 35 percent of Pakistanis live in cities. In the very near future – less than ten years, in fact – this percentage is set to rise above 50 percent. This increase in the number of urban dwellers is going to place enormous stress on available housing stock and on existing sewerage and sanitation infrastructure. A 2005 report by the P&D Department of the Punjab estimated that nearly 50 percent of Punjabis living in urban areas live in slums.
Not just housing, but providing employment, healthcare facilities, educational institutions and recreational facilities for this population is also imperative. A recent study sponsored by the British Council points to a “frightening” demographic disaster waiting to happen: with our population stabilisation policies a scandalous failure, there are expected to be 260 million of us by 2030 and 335 million by 2050. And half of them will live in cities. At the moment, however, nearly half of our population is under the age of 20. Some 66 percent are under 30. Where will these young people live? Will their habitats be suitably hygienic? Where will they work? Will they be able to raise families of their own? Will their children have schools to go to or parks to play in? And will the future generation of these Pakistani be able to live a pollution-free life?
The Environmental Protection Agency has released its results of air quality in Pakistan’s cities. In Islamabad, emissions of the lethal pollutant PM 2.5 (a particulate matter that affects the lungs and is responsible for many respiratory diseases) are several times higher than WHO limits.
The WHO prescribes 35 microgram/m3 as the limit. In Islamabad, these levels ranged between 61.2 and 234 micrograms/m3 these past two weeks. And Islamabad, one hastens to add, is meant to be the “greenest” and “cleanest” city in the country. In Karachi, PM 2.5 emissions ranged between 91.9 and 200 micrograms/m3. And in Lahore, the most polluted city in Pakistan, emissions ranged between 148 and 192 micrograms/m3.
The government of Punjab is now set to burn over Rs3 billion on the first phase of a new Canal Road widening project in Lahore (the details of which, though requested, have never been made public). It has not spent a rupee on public transport (and neither did the last one).
Its decision to auction off its land cannot be condoned because it is now fast running out of cash to pay salaries and meet pension payments. Someone has to be asked what’s going on. Questions need to be answered about the manner in which the enterprise of the great province of Punjab is being financed at the cost of the historical heritage of Lahore.
One last thing: Fearful of their lives over those of the public, the government of Punjab walled in a whole portion of Lahore – the GOR-1 area – earlier this year. The government now contends that the entire GOR-I area was never a public place, and that the encroachments it has set up blocking public thoroughfares are meant to provide security to the residents of the area. Fair enough.
But why, then, offer for sale the offices of the chief justice, the commissioner and the DCO – all of which are located squarely in the heart of GOR-I? Whom does the government of Punjab hope to sell these properties to?
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: firstname.lastname@example.org