Planning for the people

JALEES HAZIR Last week, the Chief Justice of Pakistan ordered officials of the Punjab government to present a detailed report on the Lahore Canal Road widening project and asked the concerned citizens to submit their objections to the project and propose alternatives. This is the second time in three years that a suo moto notice by CJ Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has saved thousands of trees along the Lahore Canal from arbitrary butchery of two successive governments and brought relief to millions of Lahoris. Beyond the project in question, the case has thrown up larger issues that need to be addressed urgently to save the charming metropolis of Lahore from becoming an urban disaster like most other mega-cities in the region. The most important issue is that of planning, or the lack of it. Lahore is now estimated to house a population of 10 million, and it is obvious that the multiple challenges that this situation poses cannot be met without a carefully prepared and comprehensive master plan. Elaborate exercises have been conducted in the past to put together a master plan for the city, and if my memory serves me right, at least two such plans were even finalised. However, the development in the city has continued to follow its haphazard dubious course as these plans gathered dust in government departments and became outdated. Interestingly, despite its weaknesses, a master plan does exist even today, but instead of improving upon it with the input of relevant professionals, it has been conveniently ignored as governments push ahead with their half-baked ideas and misplaced priorities. A glaring case is that of the Lahore Ring Road that has suffered at the hands of successive governments that have played around with its alignment with the unqualified assistance of bureaucratic yes-men. Reports in the press have highlighted the personal interests of those ruling the roost behind such arbitrary alterations. A similar trend is that of commercialisation of residential areas, a policy followed religiously by whoever is in charge of the city. It might make lots of money for some property owners and corrupt city officials, but it plays havoc with any planning that might have gone into the development of these areas. It sets into motion a vicious cycle of creating congestion and then dealing with it. Multi-storied buildings are allowed to come up in place of spacious bungalows, bringing in more cars and therefore wider roads. Of course, the entire sewage network designed for a residential area must be dug up and adjusted to take the additional load of floors upon floors of offices in place of one bungalow. The electricity supply must be revamped. And before the new infrastructure is put in place, the next road or block or vicinity is also declared commercial. So the city is always in a race to keep up with the fallout of the mindless development policies of those in charge. Then, of course, there is the other very important issue of development priorities that are heavily tilted in favour of the privileged sections of the population and the areas they live and work in. It is a disturbing thought that while billions of rupees are spent on building flyovers and underpasses so that people travelling in private cars can zip across the city at greater and greater speeds, the government has no money to invest in a decent public transport system. While roads in posh areas are adorned with frills of ornamental plants and useless decoration, the city seems to have no money for providing basic urban facilities to millions that reside in less-privileged localities. And it is not just a case of oversight; there is money to be made in the sort of development that is favoured by those in charge. There are numerous examples of wasteful expenditure incurred by the city of Lahore due to these misplaced priorities, and there seems to be no end to the trend in sight. There are indications that expensive solutions are preferred because of the kickbacks that officials receive for pushing them. Isn't it surprising that when it comes to developing a mass-transit system for our cities, everything is discussed from elevated trains from Japan to an underground solution from France, that would require hefty loans and extensive development work, while simpler and less expensive solutions are ignored? In the case of Lahore, for instance, the existing railway track is never entertained as a possibility. One leg connects southern Lahore all the way to Raiwind and beyond to the centre of the city. From the central station, another leg stretches East while the other one moves West over the Ravi to Shahdara and the industrial area beyond it. With ample room for additional tracks and stations all along the existing tracks, it provides an ideal backbone for basing a mass-transit on. Together with either a bus system or a train line on the Ring Road that intersects it at three points, it could solve problems for millions of commuters in the city. But it seems that those in charge are not interested in such practical measures and are sold on fancy projects costing billions of dollars. And this is not the only example of this wasteful tendency. Hundreds of workers who used to desilt the Lahore Canal every year efficiently and cleanly were replaced by monstrous machines that damage the embankment, the sidewalk and the trees every year, while not doing the job half as efficiently. Years ago, the city bought a solid waste collection system, complete with vehicles and skips that do the job mechanically. I don't remember seeing these machines do the job as they are supposed to, but the huge skips block entire lanes of traffic on the already congested downtown roads. Why a city that has a surplus of labour chose to go for a system designed for Sweden, should not be very hard to guess. It does not take a genius to figure out some basic requirements of urban development for a city the size of Lahore. It should be planned professionally and in the interest of its residents, especially those with meagre means. The writer is a freelance columnist.