While bulldozers throng the fringes of partially closed-off Rawalpindi roads readying for the metro bus project, environmental experts and activists gather to discuss the potential adverse affects the mass transit system may have on the capital’s environment and aesthetics.
A small group of citizens meeting at Kuch Khaas looked concerned as Bilal Haque gave a presentation on successful mass transit systems across the world. Towards the end, he recounted the negative impacts of the metro bus project in Lahore.
“We are all for mass transit, but there is no need for us to waste our resources on massive highways when we can look into alternate systems,” said the social activist Dushka Syed.
Islamabad’s green belts serve as mini-forests. Building the proposed highways will damage natural air filters, and the trees and vegetation that lessen pollution and replenish underground water reserves will be affected. Moreover, the city’s visual appeal is at risk. “Also at stake is the flora and fauna which is indigenous to the area,” said Haque.
A one-of-a-kind planned city in Pakistan, Islamabad was originally to be a materialisation of the concept of a ‘dynametropolis’, or a dynamic metropolis. This blueprint was to allow expansion of the city with minimal adverse affects on urban life” explained Haque.
According to the master plan, residential units are divided into sectors making up a grid, with each of them measuring 2x2 kilometres. The city’s traffic needs are met by an integrated system of highways and principal roads, connecting various areas of the metropolis and inter and intra-sector roads.
Showing images of similar projects operating elsewhere in Turkey and Delhi, Haque suggested that the metro bus project needs to be brought in line with the master plan which would allow a ‘dynamic’ expansion of the existing road network.
The threat to the city’s aesthetic appeal is material, said Haque, citing a case from Lahore. “The elevated expressways for metro bus in Lahore have blocked scenic views of famous historical sites in the Old City, such as the Badshahi Mosque.”
Despite the criticism, the group was generally in favour of a mass transit system, stating that it was long overdue. Neglect on part of the civil authorities and whims of the transport mafia has made life miserable for more than 90 per cent of commuters who do not own automobiles of their own.
“Greater consideration needs to be given to these environmental impacts and to the optimal utilisation of tax revenue. If this project is not done right, it will cause more harm than good,” said Haque.
An architect and urban development and environment specialist, Imrana Tiwana seemed to concur with Haque on the point that the metro bus project in Lahore is laden with issues.
“This is not just a bus project --- it reflects our national psyche, preferences in budget allocation and development planning as a whole” she said. To validate her point, Tiwana pointed out that 80-90 per cent of Punjab’s entire budget has gone towards the metro bus project.
“We need wiser development schemes and long-term accountability for ongoing projects,” said Tiwana. “The solution is not widening roads and underpasses. Projects such as these are reflective of the cities’ management and the entire paradigm of development in Pakistan,” she added.
Pointing to other questionable aspects, Syed said that the project’s tender was awarded to Nespak without a free and open competition. Moreover, the same firm has been assigned the environmental impact evaluation, giving way to a major conflict of interest.
“We need to have an open debate discussing whether this is the best way to provide mass transit facility to the twin cities” proposed Syed. “To a lot of non-believers, this seems like another quick project intended for quick results to bag more votes for the next elections,” she added.
Christina Afridi, another activist, echoed the concern that such decisions should not be made in haste. All stakeholders, including the citizens, must be considered before initiating such projects.
The group urged citizens of the twin cities to participate in the Environmental Protection Agency’s meeting on May 3 at the convention centre to voice their concerns.
“By the time the citizens wake up, the bulldozers will be at the 7th Avenue,” said the activist Fauzia Minallah.
The event was organised by the National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research (NIHCR).
Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2014.
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