In one of his TED Talks, Swedish public-health guru Hans Rosling talks about the difference between the means and goals of development. For example, economic growth and education are important means of development. But they are not goals in and of themselves. A clean environment, good health and a vibrant culture are definitely the goals of development. But they are not the important means of development.
A review of some of the urban development projects planned for the city of Lahore in the next year makes one wonder what type of development goals have been set for its residents.
Lahore is the largest city in Punjab and second in size only to the megalopolis Karachi. With Pakistan already the most urbanised country in South Asia and with urbanisation expected to level off at about 60 percent by 2050, the size of cities like Lahore is expected to double in ten to twenty years.
Cities like Lahore have to deal with existing problems of infrastructure and service delivery. As things stand, there is pressure on housing availability, sewerage and sanitation facilities, healthcare, the local economy and recreational spaces. Each one of these challenges is not just abstractions: they are very much tangible, and are the reason and cause for many of the human tragedies we see played out on the streets. And as cities like Lahore grow larger, these pressures and tragedies will only increase and grow.
Most of the housing boom of the last decade caters to an urban-elite minority, and scarcely for the majority urban poor. Almost all of these housing societies have obtained the land for their schemes after the exercise by the state of its right of eminent domain. As if a Revenue Employees Housing Scheme or a Journalists Colony is in the public interest. To be fair, many housing societies obtained their land through bargain, but the point here is not the acquisition of the land, but the effect of the acquisition and land-use change on the previous residents of the land. Housing society after housing society in the city has been built on arable land in the ownership of the many little villages and hamlets that dotted the city's peri-urban area. Over the last fifty years, urban expansion has literally robbed dozens of villages of their primary means of livelihood and has not–not a single instance–provided their residents alternative means of livelihood or training to integrate into a middle-class urban economy. The effects are there for everyone to see: the discrepant lifestyle of the rich in the Defence openly mocks the squalor in the besieged village of Charar, the pind it surrounds. The inequity of the urban development cannot be denied.
Urban development has hasn't just been inequitable, it is also unhealthy. As the city has grown by leaps and bounds, it has grown on a backbone of roads. It is this backbone that allows residents of the city to get to work, to school and to do the things that make the city liveable. However, because there is no meaningful public transport in the city, this means that this backbone is forever choked by an ever-increasing number of polluting private automobiles.
The air quality in Lahore is the worst in the city's recorded history, and the worst in the country. Just this week, it was reported that air quality in Gulberg, one of the last verdant bits of the city, was at least 30 percent lower than prescribed air- quality standards and very much in the "Hazard" category. Levels of pollution are higher, much higher, everywhere else in the city. But unlike urban development, air pollution doesn't discriminate between rich or poor. Everyone in the city knows someone with a respiratory problem. Of course, if nothing is done by way of automobile-emission control, public transport or air-quality enforcement, the air quality in the city will not be getting any better.
With the waters of the Ravi assigned to India under the Indus Basin Treaty, Lahore lost one of its main sources of groundwater recharge. Of course, the city could be smart and come up with ways, as has been done in so many cities around the world, of exploiting the potential of "green water" (that is, the water that falls from the sky as rain, as opposed to "blue water," which is surface water from things like glacial melt).
But, then, if the city were smart, it would not face the drinking water problems it does. We currently suck drinking water from as far down as 800 feet of a limited groundwater source and don't have a single–not one–water conservation law. Sahibs continue to have their cars washed in drinking water, and every day, five times a day, the faithful offer prayers after a long wuzu (ablution).
And as if running out of water wasn't enough, the quality of the water is so poor that the chief justice of the Lahore High Court has been moved to take suo motu notice of a news report that indicates that the water from 253 out of 392 WASA-operated tube wells in the city is contaminated with unsafe quantities of arsenic. Just like polluted air, polluted water doesn't discriminate between rich and poor. The urban elite may think that bottled water will save them from water-borne diseases (the most lethal killer in Pakistan today). But their sense of security is misplaced. Earlier in the year, the court was informed that only 10 of 64 bottled water manufacturers in the city actually had licences.
These challenges may become insurmountable in the future if nothing is done about them now. Today. As I see things, Lahore's urban priorities should be, at this stage: water management and conservation, sanitation, public transport and energy efficiency. Provincial and local government need to work together to create an enabling environment where these services can be delivered.
What is devastating is that, in the presence of such pressing concerns and challenges, the government of Punjab (there is no functioning local government in the city) has (i) directed the LDA to come up with a commercialisation policy, (ii) ordered the construction of a handful of parking plazas, and (iii) has given control of the solid-waste management (SWM) department of the City District Government to the provincial Project Management Unit.
Are we up to the task? It appears not. The government's commitment to one of the goals of development–a clean and healthy environment–can be gauged by the fact that all of the city's sewage (that's over eight million people) is just dumped into the Ravi riverbed to make its way into the province's canal irrigation system. Out of sight out of mind? Not so. It's an open secret that crops are being irrigated in sewage.
Current policy isn't just disconnected from reality: if we continue these means of "development," there are simply not going to be any goals left to enjoy. Parking plazas are a subsidy to the automobile-driving elite. Nowhere in the world are they touted as a measure to ease congestion (public transport, congestion-pricing and effective parking pricing are actually the key). The commercialisation policy has been formulated without considering, for a moment, the long-term environmental and urban planning repercussions of allowing large-scale changes in land use.
It's has been challenged (as I predicted in my column, "Scam in the Making," Nov 6, 2009) in the Lahore High Court, and it's anyone's guess whether it will actually be followed. As for SWM; well, let's see. The monsoon is usually the time when heads roll in the sewerage and sanitation services, providing some light distraction to those who pay attention to this sort of things.
The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org