Neither conservationists nor government officials are satisfied with a ‘compromise’ suggested by a mediation committee to their standoff over plans to widen Canal Road.
The Supreme Court had set up the mediation committee, headed by lawyer Parvez Hassan, after the Lahore Bachao Tehreek (LBT) challenged the Punjab government’s plans to widen Canal Road, which would require the felling of dozens of trees on the green belt either side of the road.
Only July 4, the committee submitted its recommendations to the Supreme Court after five months of deliberation. On August 16, the court reserved its verdict on the conservationists’ petition against the project.
The committee’s report, available with The Express Tribune, includes 18 ‘recommendations’, most of which call for steps to improve the environment in and around the Canal of the kind that groups like the Lahore Bachao Tehreek advocate.
However, it also suggests widening certain sections of the road, a proposition that conservation activists reject entirely. Meanwhile, government engineers and urban planners say the suggestions are impractical and will not solve the problem of traffic congestion on the road.
Imrana Tiwana of the LBT told The Express Tribune that the committee’s recommendation for widening of certain sections of the road contradicted the first 16 recommendations.
Architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz of the Lahore Conservation Society agreed. “Widening of the road means inviting problems. The traffic congestion will not be eased but will worsen in coming years,” he said.
He said the committee’s other recommendations – add a network of service roads, rebuild the underpasses on the left side of the road, improve traffic management and public transport, etc – were sufficient to ease congestion on the road.
Israr Saeed, the director of the Traffic Engineering and Planning Agency (TEPA), which is in charge of the project, rejected virtually all the recommendations, saying they were impractical. He advocated Tepa’s earlier project plan for widening the entire road and making it into a three-lane “urban highway”.
He said widening only some sections of the road would cause increased traffic congestion at bottlenecks, especially in the section after Doctor’s Hospital. He said re-engineering traffic junctions would involve a massive expenditure with little payoff.
Saeed dismissed the suggestion that the Canal be declared a heritage park and that schools be forced to introduce bus services for their students. “We tried engaging students, schools and parents in a similar project and it was a failure. Parents don’t want their children travelling on public transport when proper security can’t be ensured,” he said.
The recommendation that the Punjab University area on Canal Road be declared a ‘go-slow’ area with speed-breakers was “a fantasy”, he said. “How can you have speed-breakers on an urban highway?”
He said that the Punjab government’s promise to replace each tree that it chops down for the project with 100 mature trees was not a problem. “Tepa has 250,000 mature trees.
In the last two years, we’ve planted 230,000 trees in Lahore, including 10,000 along the Canal,” he said Finally, he said the city was not ready for suggestions such as ‘car-free’ days and a monthly public festival. “Such things can happen in civilised countries only,” he said.
Rafay Alam, the secretary of the mediation committee, said the court should adopt all the recommendations as they addressed the concerns of all sides. In its conclusion, the report states: “the committee is of the view that the strength and weight of its recommendations will be diluted if there is any ‘cherry picking’ of its recommendations.”
But Hassan, the head of the committee, said it was for the court to decide what to do. “The court may pick a few recommendations, may order the implementation of all the recommendations or may give a completely different verdict,” he said.
He said that declaring the Canal a heritage park would not mean banning road construction in the area.
Salman Aslam Butt, who is representing the government in the case, said the government supported the recommendations in principle. Seeking anonymity, a lawyer at his firm said it was very likely the court would allow the road to be widened.
Abdul Jabbar Shaheen, the director general of the Lahore Development Authority, said he had not seen the final report, said there was no point deciding where the new trees would be planted until the Supreme Court gave its verdict.
Urban planning expert Arif Hassan, who was also part of the committee but withdrew before the report was finalised, told the committee’s head that he believed the road should not be widened at all. He wrote in an email that this would result in the loss of “3.535 kilometres of beautiful landscape and flora ... simply because of automobile pressure. In fact, some areas already lost to traffic along the Canal should be reclaimed.”
1) Pass an act declaring the Lahore Canal to be a ‘heritage urban park’
2) Correct the underpasses on the Canal which are on the wrong side of the road
3) Re-engineer Canal Road junctions, i) to increase traffic capacity on roads traversing the Canal, and ii) remove unplanned access roads built by housing schemes
4) Construct a network of service roads, reclaim roads absorbed by housing societies and schools
5) Design and implement a traffic management programme
6) Improve public transport
7) Divert through-traffic by building new traffic corridors, such as the Southern Loop of the Ring Road
8) Make the Punjab University New Campus a ‘go-slow’ area
9) Treat the Canal in a holistic manner
10) Consider concerns about noise pollution
11) Preserve the Canal ecosystem, such as its various tree and bird species
12) End the dumping of sewage and effluent and improve water quality so it is safe for swimming
13) Give pedestrians and bicyclists a higher priority in urban planning
14) Build more recreation spots, organise carnivals on the Canal to build community spirit
15) Set up advisory committee to encourage public participation in governance of Canal
16) Ease traffic congestion in short term to improve access of emergency vehicles
17) and 18) Suggestions for measures to improve traffic flow at specific parts of Canal Road.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2011.