The two recent judicial interventions of the Supreme Court of Pakistan are significant with regard to the questions of urban development and their impact on cultural heritage.
The suo motu taken by the chief justice of Pakistan in the Katas Raj temples case was aimed at restoring two basic human rights – access to water and cultural heritage. It was a robust attempt at balancing goals of sustainable development after some cement factories in district Chakwal over-exploited and severely depleted water resources meant for agricultural purposes. The factories also adversely impacted the temples and greatly compromised the historical, religious and cultural significance as the mythical pond of the temple dried up.
The court had ordered the concerned factories to arrange for alternate water resources. This case bears much similarity with the famous ‘Taj Trapezium Zone’ case, which the Supreme Court of India supervised for three years before finally passing an order. The court had ordered the industries situated within the zone and causing damage to the Taj Mahal by emitting pollution owing to the use of coal to change over to natural gas or relocate to other industrial areas. Both the cases are classic examples of discouraging urban economic development at the expense of environment, as it adversely impacts cultural heritage.
The other judicial intervention was our apex court’s verdict in the Orange Line Metro Train Project (OLMT) case. On the one hand, the judgment acknowledges the need for ‘major preservation, repair and protection’ of heritage sites, while on the other, it allows the construction and operation of the project, consequently raising questions about the well-being of these historical sites in the future. Assured that through certain remedial and mitigating measures any reported or potential damage will be taken care of, the judgment clearly prioritised the development agenda over the impact it would have on the cultural environment and heritage.
Now when the construction activity is in full swing, there are traces of visible physical damage that warrant attention. The walls of some historical places like the Mauj Darya Darbar, its mosque, Supreme Court Lahore registry, General Post Office and the Saint Andrews Church have virtually been demolished to accommodate construction. Is this not considered damaging to these historic buildings?
However, in the opinion of international experts, more destruction is to come when the operation of heavy construction equipment will send seismic waves along the surface of the earth. Also, once the train begins operation there may be further damage – if viewed seriously in light of the study relating to the Metro Train induced vibration on historic building in Changu, China. The research says that “For structures that have suffered from weathering, or have cracks, even low velocities [traffic vibrations] could give rise to fatigue damage”. It is an indisputable fact that most of these cultural historical sites along the track of the track of the metro line are already bearing cracks and sign of fatigue due to years of neglect, and therefore, are prone to be damaged by vibration and train velocity.
In India, the Archaeological Society of India (ASI), responsible for looking after the conservation of monuments, has undertaken many projects to clean the marble of Taj Mahal – a Unesco world heritage site. These include banning motor vehicles and construction activities within 500 metres of the building, plying of only CNG vehicles near the Taj, sufficient supply of electricity to discourage use of generators and complete prohibition on burning waste near the site and also restricting the number of tourists visiting the site. Despite these measures the ASI has failed to clear up the air around the Taj Mahal.
So how do we expect the Orange Line that is, running along the heart of a congested and polluted city, situated at a distance of only five to 100 feet from these historic buildings in deviation of the 200-feet buffer zone as per law, will not negatively impact the health of these buildings? Will the mitigating measures taken after these sites are damaged be able to harness the irreversible damage done? Why should we then allow the construction of projects that could potentially harm our historical assets?
The OLMT also poses the challenge of visual obstruction of the Gulabi Bagh Chauburji and particularly Shalimar Gardens, also on the list of world heritage sites in danger. This is because the train will ply on elevated viaduct girders that would impair the visual integrity of these buildings. In July 2016, the World Heritage Committee of Unesco expressed serious concerns about the development of the Orange Line Metro and its potential of impacting the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the monument.
The committee requested the state to urgently complete and share with the World Heritage Centre the Visual Impact Study as decided by the committee at its 40th session. The state was also asked to invite ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) Reactive Monitoring Mission immediately after the announcement of the decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to examine the Orange Line Metro Train project, and discuss the project with the relevant government authorities. A review of the management and protection arrangements of the property, to ascertain whether there is a potential danger to the OUV of the monument, was also ordered. If Unesco’s guidelines are not complied with in letter and spirit, the permanent protection of Shalimar Gardens by the world body could be in jeopardy.
The OLMT does not balance the preservation of our cultural heritage with our goal of economic development. Metro trains are usually planned where there is sufficient space all around a site and there is no imminent threat of harm to people, their culture or heritage. The government should have met the transport requirements of citizens by initiating speedy and modern buses in this part of the congested city. And if at all this was impossible, then constructing an underground metro line should have been the preferred option from an ecologically sensitive viewpoint.
The writer holds an LLM degree in international economic law from the University of Warwick.