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Infrastructure as National Pastime

Lahore torn between preservation and hyper-development


If you’ve ever visited Lahore, chances are you have taken a picture from the perches of Cuckoo’s Den or Andaaz Restaurant — the local equivalent of a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower, not denoting real insight into the city, but a custom nonetheless. The restaurants are situated on the north side of Androon Shehr, otherwise known as the Old City, a place with all the storied Mughal-era monuments, tombs and shrines that made Lahore a major prize for Pakistan during the Partition of India. Tourists flock here in search of authenticity, for these restaurants are on the periphery of Heera Mandi, a legendary red-light district (which politicians are rumored to frequent), and venturing there has long been considered an excursion to the most exotic, sordid and grimy corner of the city. But, like any truly effective tourist spectacle, this canonical view of historic Lahore serves to obscure, not illuminate. It pulls the wool over the eyes of the uninitiated, allowing them to see the sanitized as exotic, the hackneyed as vintage.

Just a few years ago, to my surprise, I found the grubby pavements and dark alleys of the area replaced by quaint cobblestone, extending all the way down the street past the restaurants, punctuated by tall Victorian-style street lamps supporting neon Coca-Cola signs. Even the street vendors seemed artificial, suddenly, the facades on the buildings a little too polished. Today’s visitors might be a bit disappointed by the lack of real squalor on display.

And still — tourists reliably go to Cuckoo’s Den. They enter through a dark hallway to a foyer, packed with dusty furniture and wall-to-wall artworks by Iqbal Hussain (a famous painter whose subjects were the women of Heera Mandi). They ascend a winding, claustrophobic staircase with massive steps using their phones to light the way, opening up eventually to a terrace under the night sky. There they can dine and admire the enormous Badshahi Masjid sitting amidst the jam-packed, frenetic city—a vast estate built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. They marvel at the vast domes and minarets. A picture will be taken. Something will have been achieved.

Though they may not know it, they are overlooking the schism at the heart of modern Lahore, a city that is expanding dizzyingly through the proliferation of housing schemes, the explosive spread of over- and underpasses — the government’s model for rapid urban development. Development, both completed and proposed, around the Old City has been bewildering in recent years. Adjacent to Badshahi Mosque, an overpass rises majestically before making a loop, rendering the route of my childhood, a maze of alleys only a well-trained driver could have navigated, a distant memory.

Over the past few years, battle lines have been drawn between the sentries of heritage and those who hanker for the throbbing city of over 7 million people to rapidly urbanize.

Grumbling over never-ending construction here has been a local pastime for as long as I can remember. But today, the stakes are higher. The current controversy centers around the much-lampooned Orange Line Project: arguably one of Pakistan’s most ambitious infrastructure plans, it is a plan for an elevated mass-transit rail system across the city, financed largely through loans from China.

Last year, protesters—mostly, though not exclusively, of the elite variety—emerged to demonstrate against the partial demolition of historic sites the construction required. Following a frantic rush to construction, months of vigorous campaigning by civil society groups, and reports of rampant embezzlement by government officials and contractors from the multi-billion-dollar project, the Lahore High Court ruled that construction be halted near eleven heritage sites. The city is at a standstill. Gigantic pillars of concrete stand pitifully along cleared roads, rods of steel jutting out next to mounds of dug up ground. Newspapers deride the government’s claims that 60% of the work has been completed. After all, all they see are pillars and abandoned trucks.

Still, the ruling PML-N party, whose urban development plans are roundly maligned by upper-class critics, is vastly popular. In 2013, they inaugurated the Lahore Metrobus, a bus rapid transit system that cuts across the city from Gajjumata to Shahdara. At the time, many quibbled that the Sharif government was desperate to complete the project to win the upcoming election (they did). Then again, those who quibbled likely owned their own vehicles. The Lahore Metrobus, heavily subsidized by the government and hugely popular because of the massive leap in access it has provided to workers in the city, is of little use to the vehicled English-speaking elites.

Last year, I came upon a meme that had begun to circulate on Facebook. It depicted the typical Orange Line protester as an affluent woman wearing crisp designer clothes holding up an angry sign written in English about the injustice being done to Chauburgi Chowk while at the same time inquiring how to get there.

On my next visit home, at a house party in Defence—an area home to many of the highest-income families in the city—I sat in a corner catching up with an old friend, feeling morosely out of touch with my home town. The conversation turned to the group Lahore, Metro Aur Aap (Lahore, Metro and You), a leading civil society group protesting the Orange Line Project. My friend, as it turned out, had attended a number of their meetings. She burst forth with a screed about the elitism in the group’s leadership. I relished the gossip, despite having little to contribute.

The conversation petered out as others entered and left our company. People I used to know in high school became more and more inebriated. I left the party early, my awareness of my lack of local knowledge deepening my sense of displacement. My friend dropped me off in his Alto to my mother’s house in Cantt, 27 kilometers away from the Walled City in distance, incalculably far apart in class.

But if class guilt circumscribes one’s response to the urban development model of the provincial government, then one must go the whole hog. The complete picture isn’t pretty for the PML-N, a party that assiduously poses as pro-poor. As the Orange Line Project began, thousands of people, predominantly in low-income neighborhoods near heritage sites were evicted. Bulldozers arrived waving flags of modernity, those that had been living in historic neighborhoods forced out, often with little more than verbal warning. Little is known about plans for compensation or resettlement, if any exist. The heavy budgetary prioritization of overpasses and highways over health and education, say, puts the government’s schemes in a different light — neoliberalism as perfected by our arch-rival India in cities like Gurgaon.

And so, the fight for a heritage site transcends its caricature: it becomes about the communities that constitute the vast proportion of the Old City. We are left now not just with the empty ruins of demolished businesses and homes, but erased markers of a communal identity embedded in Mughal-era marble and mosaic tiles, many of them torn down. Towards the end of March, locals in Samanabad blockaded Multan Road after receiving a 24-hour deadline to vacate their homes. If it was just about elites fighting for beautiful buildings before, it wasn’t anymore.

Towards the end of my trip to Pakistan last March, a close friend who had been timing how long I took to reach her place reproached me for taking my old routes. “Take the Ring Road,” she said. “It’s much faster.” Accustomed to the slow-moving traffic jams along unruly streets, I plucked up the courage and began driving along the gargantuan, twisty six-lane Ring Road highway. Cars flashed past me. Soon, I was hopelessly lost in “the ring.”

The highway yawns across the periphery of the city, all the way to housing schemes I’ve never heard of, places with names like Valencia, Lake City and LDA City that have been recently co-opted into the city limits. Even with the plethora of street signs, every turn led me to an area I had never seen before. Each time I backtracked, I found myself exactly where I had started. Frustrated, I wondered if the person who named the circuitous route was playing a cruel joke. In any case, we have certainly arrived at an appropriate metaphor for Lahore’s tortuous rush to development.