A massive infrastructure development is causing rising tensions, with critics denouncing the excessive cost and potential social and environmental damage, Sadia Ayesha Hasan writes.
Tensions are rising in Punjab over a massive infrastructure development, with the province’s government appearing at odds with the people’s wishes. Even the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has entered the fray. At issue are unpopular government policies.
Pakistan has never been classified as a purely democratic country, being ranked at 111 on the 2013-14 democracy index by the Democracy Ranking. Electoral fraud and lack of involvement of the public in decision-making are some of the key factors preventing the country from moving towards democracy, and tensions are rising. Over the past few years, civilian protests against unpopular government decisions have increased, often turning violent. A recent flashpoint is the Orange Line Metro Train project, initiated by the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) Group in the city of Lahore.
The 27km-long Lahore Orange Line Metro Train Project was approved by the Central Development Working Party in May 2015. The project, worth Rs.165.20 billion (US$1.5 billion), and funded by the Punjab government with a concessional loan from the Chinese, is promoted as a landmark mass transit project aimed at providing the poor and middle class with a world class service. However, its consequences are seen as reaching much further.
Other political parties have raised objections over the enormous amount of money spent on one developmental mega project within one city, claiming the decision has been made to ensure future votes. Critics claim the project will place a significant financial burden on the country through subsidisation of train tickets, as is the case with the Metro bus scheme also initiated by the PMLN.
Critics extend beyond political parties though, to members of the Pakistan public and national and international not-for-profit organisations. The issues aren’t simply financial. The project also poses a threat to the environment and to historical sites from the Mughal rule, including the Shalimar Gardens, Lahore Fort, Chauburji, and from British rule – buildings such as the General Post Office (GPO) and Presbyterian Church. The Shalimar Gardens is a UNESCO world heritage site, and UNESCO has voiced concern over potential damage. In October last year, UNESCO wrote to the chief secretary of Punjab, reminding the Government of Pakistan of its obligation to protect the ‘outstanding universal values of world heritage’ and the project’s potential adverse impact.
In Lahore, protesters claim the project violates Pakistan’s own laws, including the Antiquities Act 1975 and the Punjab Special Premises Preservation Ordinance 1985. Protesters are calling for an immediate halt to construction activity and a changing of the route, as awareness of the implications intensifies – in January, a rally was held at the GPO Chowk. On 28 January 2016 the protesters enjoyed a small victory, with the Lahore High Court ordering that the Orange Line track move at least 200 feet away from the heritage sites.
This is a significant step in Pakistan. Previously, despite objections by local civil society and the public, mega projects such as widening of the Lahore canal road continued to completion.
There are also social implications, as the project requires taking over land from the mostly poor Punjab public. In November 2015, Lahore High Court ordered a stay on a part of the metro project, after local residents filed a petition challenging the government’s acquisition of their properties. Despite the stay order, bulldozers were sent to level off the land. Against this backdrop, the government continues construction.
In other instances where the government has forcefully taken over land, peaceful demonstrations have turned into violent protests, and this trend is emerging again; in January, residents started damaging construction material near Samanabad Morr.
In a struggle between the public and the government over a policy decision, the challenge to the Orange Line route has additional significance, as it has increased awareness among locals regarding their rights and encouraged collaborative action to achieve their aims.
Added to this, the involvement and support of international organisations such as the UN could be a major factor in pushing the government to abide by international agreements and Pakistan’s own regulations. Given the current level of concern both locally and internationally, there is hope the government might consider halting the project and getting public opinion back on track.
The bigger picture is one of policy versus the public, as opposed to policy for the people, and Pakistan’s social evolution. Perhaps the Orange Line Metro Train Project will influence that country’s progression on the Democracy Ranking. Time will tell if it moves up, or down.