Saving Lahore…uphill task

A bunch of starry-eyed do-gooders, under the banner of the Lahore Bachao Tehreek, are trying to raise their voice against the further expansion of the Canal Road. Over the years, and under the tender ministrations of chief ministers who for the mischief they have caused in the name of development deserve a spell in some Stalinist re-education centre, the Canal road has been double-widened, then triple-widened and tunnelled under.

Trees have been cut – Pakistani officialdom and Pakistanis generally nursing some kind of a primeval grudge against trees…if they see one standing honour is not satisfied unless it is pulled down – and an iron railing has been put up, of no use whatsoever and on the wrong side of the footpath. The visionary behind this planning deserves a prize.

Yet Punjab officialdom, and for that matter the far-seeing administration of the Khadim-e-Aala – they no longer even smile when this title is used, such being the prevalent sense of humour – are resolved to vandalise the Canal thoroughfare further. They want to ‘improve’ the underpasses and create some U-turns, as if U-turning was not already a national art. If memory serves, a sum of over eight billion rupees is set aside in this year’s provincial budget for this purpose.

The Bachao Tehreek, comprising quixotic souls like Imrana Tiwana, Rafay Alam, inevitably Nayyar Dada – proclaim any lost cause and you can count upon his spiritual if not any other kind of support; he’s even a classic music buff, so there you are – is protesting against the planned expansion and the resultant erasing of what’s left of the Canal’s beauty. At the last public hearing on this project a PML-N MPA arrived with a rowdy retinue in tow, shouting that they were for development and would brook no conspiracy to stop the wheels of development. Try arguing with that.

My advice to the Bachao Tehreek…you won’t get anywhere and no one’s going to listen to you. And the reason is this: you can fight physical abuse but cultural vandalism is a condition of the mind. When someone in a position of authority is convinced that concrete, and erecting monuments to concrete such as needless roads and flyover, is what amounts to progress, and civic institutions are weak and the culture of public protest is not very strong, and officialdom is programmed to jump to attention and perform other gymnastic routines whenever a political boss raises his whistle, it doesn’t take much to figure out that you are fighting a losing battle.

Who should one name in Punjab? Just to give one example, try talking culture or, if that’s a dirty word, try talking environment and the preservation of the old with that hope of the future, Hamza Shahbaz, or with my friend Saad Rafiq, Khawaja Hasaan, or any other of the luminaries who form the ruling set in the provincial capital. Anyone doing this would soon come to his senses. It’s just not their cup of tea. Talk of housing societies, of land grabs, investment in the poultry business, and you will have a spellbound audience hanging on your every word. But preserving what’s left of the beauty of the Canal? That’s for suckers and drifters who don’t understand the secrets of governance.

(I must hasten to add that the doing up of the façade of old buildings along the Mall has been a good thing and the Khadim-e-Aala deserves kudos for that…which only shows that given half a mind the right things can still be done.)

So good luck to the Bachao Tehreek, even if it should be warned beforehand that it would take more than the dharnas of the Captain and His Holiness to stop the Lahore Development Authority from its plans. The LDA, it will be remembered, was the agency which went about removing the barriers in Model Town and where that led to we need not be told.

The Canal nightmare is not the only one envisioned. There are also budgeted-for plans to make signal-free the Gulberg Main Boulevard and Jail Road. Have Lahore’s other problems been solved that this fixation has arisen? It would be an interesting study to find out how in our climate officialdom and political authority come to fix their priorities.

To say that government-run schools and public health are in a bad state and that we should look to them before doing anything else has been said so often and with so little effect that it seems pointless to say the same thing again. So let me desist. Government schools and government hospitals will remain the way they are because our priorities are different.

The government of the Khadim-e-Aala is also seized with a plan to bring Disney-style development and entertainment to the historic area around the majestic mausoleum of the Emperor Jahangir and the more frugal but perhaps more moving tomb of his consort, Noor Jahan. One can only raise one’s hands in horror. We may be making a mess of our present but what have we done to deserve this destruction of our past?

This is a funny country. We have money for bombs and missiles and other fads and notions of development, but not even a little for preserving monuments like the Lahore Fort and similar structures. Norway or some other country has to give us a small grant and then, in desultory fashion, begins a project of conservation. And we are not even ashamed. Where we want to fund our extravagances, like staying at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, money is no problem.

When the Khadim-e-Aala became chief minister in 2008 his then chief secretary decided that the office of the chief secretary in the Secretariat should be restored to its original state as in British days. A colossal sum of money, never publicly disclosed, was spent. I am all for restoration but I can’t help thinking that in this case it would have been more convincing, and a trifle more justified, if the chief secretary had been more concerned about restoring not the office but the dedication of a Henry Lawrence and a John Lawrence, the founders of modern Punjab.

But to come to think of it, in the little respect that we show for history there is probably a larger phenomenon at work. For just consider what in the name of progress has been done to the historical Makkah – old sites going back to the early days of Islam demolished and bulldozed, including the Bilal Mosque of the time of the Holy Prophet. Around the Kaaba have arisen shopping malls and luxury hotels. Many of the small hills around the city have been flattened. If someone from the past were to visit Makkah today he wouldn’t recognise it.

Ziauddin Sardar writes in the IHT: “The old Ottoman houses, with their elegant mashrabiyas – latticework windows – and elaborately carved doors were replaced with hideous modern ones. Within a few years Makkah was transformed into a ‘modern’ city with large multilane roads, spaghetti junctions, gaudy hotels…” What chance then has Lahore or its Canal?

There has to be a comparative analysis. The newly-built Azadi Chowk in front of Minto Park was a necessity. All the public transport coming into Lahore enters through this chowk and previous to the flyovers the traffic congestion was terrible. So full marks to the Khadim-e-Aala. The metro-bus has been built. So there’s no use crying over it (although it remains an aesthetic eyesore, something that Lahore could have done without). But there are bigger problems in Punjab. What about hospitals, what about schools, what about the police, the provision of justice, law and order? The list is long. For focus to be exclusively on underpasses and flyovers is to stand the idea of governance and development on its head.

So can anything be done about the proposed u-turns on the Canal? The Canal is a Lahore monument serving the city…and serving the young when it is hot in summers. It deserves to be kept the way it is, without further vandalisation. Will anyone listen to the Lahore Bachao Tehreek? The PML-N leadership – now largely a family concern – is haunted by that cry, surely an invention of the devil, “Go Nawaz Go”. Can it at all give its mind to other things?

This Article was originally Published in The News

4 responses to “Saving Lahore…uphill task

  1. This is an excellent article. It’s a pleasure to read flawless writing even though what you say is heartbreaking!

  2. If Lahore Bachao Tehreek is indeed has any love for trees and for the Lahore Canal why don’t they contribute in a positive way and plant trees where trees are missing or have died due to age or rot along the Canal banks. Why do they put every thing on the state. The citizens should come forward and contribute in this noble cause and your Lahore Bachao Tehreek should take a lead for a change. Learn to contribute and give up criticizing.

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