Pakistan is home to and custodian of some of the great ‘heritage’ sites of the world — and it is proving to be an indifferent guardian in some instances. The Lahore Orange Line Metro Train has courted controversy and the anger of civil society from the outset as it appears to either flout the rules and regulations that determine how close the construction may come to heritage sites, or run as close as possible to the edge of legality as it can. Once again it is the courts that have ridden to the rescue, and a hearing at the High Court in Lahore on Monday 3rdApril made it abundantly clear that the honourable justices were not going to allow ‘anyone’ to destroy heritage sites in the city. Such is their concern that they have decided to hear in this matter daily.
Legal arguments by the Punjab government attempt to negate those put up by 10 petitions against the project. These had restrained the government from pursuing construction of any structure within a distance of 200 feet from any of 11 designated heritage sites. The government did nothing to strengthen its case when the court was informed that the Unesco Reactive Monitoring Team that wanted to visit Pakistan to ascertain the strength or otherwise of the various arguments being advanced — had not been granted permission and not been issued with visas.
Both sides have valid points to make. There is a real need to upgrade mass transit systems as the cities grow across the country, but this cannot be at the expense of those sites of which Pakistan is a custodian into perpetuity. Lahore is an old city, and heritage sites are thick on the ground. The planners and constructors of the Orange Line were well aware from the outset where these sites were and their vulnerability, many being hundreds of years old. In this instance civil society holds the moral high ground, and the government looks shifty and evasive. Let the letter of the law be upheld and let the scrutineers go about their business.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 5th, 2017.