Since its inception in 1935, the majestic Punjab Assembly Hall has witnessed a variety of governments and members come and go. On July 13, 2021, the hall that had hosted lawmakers for over seven decades was left vacant as its members moved into a new building right behind it.
The formal opening of the building was held on January 2. The then chief minister, Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, described it as “a dream come true” before blaming the previous government (of PML-N, led by Shahbaz Sharif) for the delay in the completion of the project.
The project had been approved during former president Pervez Musharraf’s rule, after it was determined that the old building was not spacious enough. Its cost was estimated at Rs 2.37 billion.
Zain Bhatti, a former special assistant to the chief minister and a leader of the PML-Q, says, “Construction work began in 2006. By 2007, it was almost complete but the change of government in 2008 halted progress.”
Work was restarted in 2018. By the time the new building became functional, in 2021, the cost of the project had risen to Rs 5.39 billion.
Alamdar Hussain Qureshi, a former MPA from Muzaffargarh, recalls how in 2013 he entered the old building for the first time: “It looked quite stuffy. Besides, entering the building from The Mall used to be an ordeal. On days when the assembly was in session, the Charing Cross would remain blocked. I am glad the new building has changed things for the better.”
The building has an entrance on Cooper Road. There’s a large parking lot, which can accommodate over 400 cars.
The new building is composed of two parts: there is an office complex, a replica of the old building; and an assembly hall. The complex has chambers for the chief minister, speaker, deputy speaker, leader of the opposition and 38 ministers. It also boasts a press conference hall, a dispensary, a library, a security monitoring room, an IT data centre, and a mosque. The Assembly Hall has a crystal dome.
Qureshi says that the need for a new building for PA “was felt during the Covid-related lockdowns. The old building was too small to allow the members to be seated while maintaining social distancing. Because of that, the assembly once met at a nearby hotel.”
When this scribe visited the PA complex recently, there was no parliamentary activity going on. “The assembly comes alive a day before the session, and on the session days,” said Gohar, a member of the PA’s PRO section.
The hall, closed at the time, is opened on the orders of the assembly secretary, he said. “The house has a seating capacity for 422 members. The gallery can take in 800 guests. As far as I know, this is the largest assembly hall in Asia.”
The interior of the building is tastefully done. It’s hard not to think of the lavish spending that must have gone into it. The precious stones used for the exterior have been imported from Jaipur, India. The wood work is owed to the material bought from Myanmar and Africa; while the gleaming onyx stone has been imported from Afghanistan.
A team from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore, pitched in to design the interior, besides providing for calligraph-art displayed in the lobbies, and the furniture for the complex.
Despite the fact that the new building has a great vibe to it, some sections of media have expressed certain reservations. An office-bearer of the Press Gallery, wishing to remain anonymous, said that the new building was comfortable and spacious but it was “not very warm and welcoming. It sort of deters media persons from interacting with the assembly officials and MPAs.”
Unlike in the old building, he said, journalists could not use the cafeteria. “The arrangement appears to have been made to keep the journalists away from the MPAs.”
The issue has reportedly been taken up twice — first with the then speaker, Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, and later, with his successor, Sibtain Khan. Both promised to address it, but nothing came of it.
Meanwhile, the fate of the old building remains undecided. There has been word that it might be preserved as a national heritage site. The assembly staff still sit there, giving the impression that it has not been abandoned.
The writer is a media veteran interested in politics, consumer rights and entrepreneurship