Hopes and aspirations...

“I want to see more women when I venture to walk home from a coffee shop”

Smog and pollution have robbed the city of its serene cultural-hub vibe. — Photo by Rahat Dar
Smog and pollution have robbed the city of its serene cultural-hub vibe. — Photo by Rahat Dar

Interdisciplinary student of literature and sciences at LCAS

Lahore’s streets, metropolises and bazaars are dominated and run by men. Men of every age, of every caste, of every class, throng in the urban cityscape: running the hawker shops, balancing teetering trays of steaming chai in narrow alleyways, sitting at plastic tables waiting for samosas. They stand where they want, they sit where they prefer and they look where they wish.

This is not a critique on the male presence in Lahore’s public spaces, but rather, a critique on the lack of women in these same spaces.

Next year, I want to see more women when I venture to walk home from a coffee shop with my friends. I want us to own our city; I want us to fight our city for the right to live in it like the opposite sex does. I want more women to be able to walk in the streets outside their homes. I want more women to be able to run their own errands, to walk outside in their abayas, jeans, shalwars and not have to worry about the consequences.

The truth of the matter is: I will never feel at home in my city until I am as free as my brothers. Until I don’t have to hunt down a lone woman in a sea of men to feel a modicum of safety in the thick of a bazaar. I want Lahore to become ours. I want to see the city become soft when the evening light sifts through the jamun trees. I want to witness it at its worst, and at its best, without glass between us. I want it to open for us, to show us its secret alleys, its favourite spots for a cup of chai, its ancient whims.

“A city gets what its inhabitants desire”

By Ahmad Rafay Alam

Environment lawyer, climate activist and formerly chairman of the LESCO and the LWMC

All cities — Lahore is no exception — are remarkable in that every inch of space in them has been ordered by humans. From the width of the roads, the placement of any trees, parks and open spaces, to the architecture of the buildings, everything has been planned and executed at some level by the people who live in them. Cities are unique, therefore, in that their environment is designed by men and women. Those same men and women are affected by that environment. As Shakespeare said, “What is the city but the people?”

A city, therefore, gets what its inhabitants desire. For 2024, I would like to see Lahoris desire — and get — the following:

ELECTED LOCAL GOVERNMENT: As the next general election looms around the corner, it is difficult to overlook the fact that Pakistan — and not just Lahore — suffers from an extreme democratic deficit. Hopefully, the general election will address the deficit at the federal and provincial levels. But, what about Lahore?

Lahore is currently administered by an unelected bureaucrat answerable to no one. This is no reflection on the abilities of the officers involved, but it is no way to run a city either. Lahore needs the voice of its people for its governance. Elected local governments with real administrative and financial powers are what will respond to the needs of their constituents.

NON-MOTORISED MOBILITY INFRASTRUCTURE: Lahore and other Pakistani cities appear to have handed over urban planning and the allocation of scarce urban resources to property developers. We see this not just in the omnipresent real-estate advertising on the roads but also the roads themselves: all “signal-free corridors” taking the urban automobile elite from their gated housing schemes to the work, school and recreation. But most Lahoris don’t have access to automobiles and crossing the road has become dangerous and undignified.

What Lahore needs is investment in infrastructure for non-motorised transport. It needs safe and well-illuminated sidewalks and grade-separated cycle lanes.

Lahore needs to prioritise this development over infrastructure used by cars which congest, pollute and kill.

CLEANER AIR: Air pollution isn’t a Lahore problem. It’s a regional and year-long public health emergency. But Lahore’s air is among the worst in the world. It deprives its citizens of several years of their life expectancy.

Lahore needs better quality fuels in its cars, motorbikes, trucks and buses. It needs public transport. It needs to sustain itself on renewable energy. Lahori industrialists must be brought to book and forced to use cleaner fuels.

AN EQUITABLE, SAFER CITY. Enrique Penalose, the former mayor of the Colombian city of Bogota, said it best: “A city that is good for children, the elderly, the handicapped, the poor, is good for everyone else.”

Lahore isn’t the first city to face problems of pollution and inequity. Other cities have faced such issues and overcome them. One thing that was common to all those cities and those efforts was a shared civil-society vision of a cleaner, more equitable future that was more sustainable than the five-year election cycle.

“I wish for an end to a culture of fear where the city has to make gated communities within gated communities to protect its residents from themselves”

By Sarah Eleazar

Journalist; anthropology student at the University of Texas, Austin

This year, with the construction of Ring Road’s Southern Loop 3, beginning in August, we saw Lahore’s southern boundary extend to Manga Mandi. By the middle of September, vast swathes of land along both sides of Multan Road were bulldozed to remove vegetation for construction to begin in earnest. A few weeks later, four housing societies on either side of Multan Road, all the way to Manga Mandi, began their construction projects.

Rows of heavy-duty construction vehicles blocked segments of the highway and diversions popped up all along the road. Large trucks transported mounds of dirt, tractor trolleys lugged mountains of bricks, and the regular users of Multan Road — giant container trucks, small vehicles, Qing-qi rickshaws, motorcycles, pedestrians — joined the melee that is travel on Multan Road. With the completion of this stretch of the road, property prices for the 5-6 housing societies on Multan Road will skyrocket.

The residents of villages and small factory towns along Multan Road experienced the bounty of this expansion differently. By October, a thin haze comprising mostly dust particles and vehicular and industrial smoke began to settle in and around the villages. The massive construction enterprise had coincided with the beginning of the smog season. While farmers in these villages were being penalised for burning crop stubble, smoke from brick kilns along Multan Road increased to facilitate the massive expansion of Lahore.

will never feel at home in my city until I don’t have to hunt down a lone woman
in a sea of men to feel a modicum of safety in the thick of a bazaar.” — Photo
by Rahat Dar
“I will never feel at home in my city until I don’t have to hunt down a lone woman in a sea of men to feel a modicum of safety in the thick of a bazaar.” — Photo by Rahat Dar

The villages and towns included in this enterprise are undergoing a post-modern encounter with urbanity — a facelift of sorts without any real attempt to improve their quality of life. In many cases, loss of livelihood through agriculture and worsening environmental conditions have forced households to leave their villages and towns.

As hundreds of acres of agricultural land become overlaid with concrete to build houses for an incoming, hitherto unknown, set of new residents, we can see Lahore expanding. But what do we mean when we say a city is expanding? Does it mean that its existing population will spread out towards the suburbs to improve the city’s livability?

That seems unlikely. Instead, I posit that hundreds of thousands of households are being forced to turn to cities for want of better livelihood, loss of agricultural land (as expansion indicates encroachment on existing land), or climate-change driven catastrophes such as floods.

While existing residents of Lahore complain about the unliveability of the city owing to its contaminated groundwater and toxic air, the city’s new migrant working classes will need a radically different infrastructure to make their lives possible. Beyond livability of the city, can we imagine Lahore as a hospitable place for working classes and new migrants?

In the New Year, I wish for an end to a culture of fear where the city has to make gated communities within gated communities to protect its residents from themselves. I hope for infrastructure that looks beyond blanketing spaces with concrete and creating more space for cars rather than people. I would like for the city government to pay attention to the quality of people’s lives.

My friends in Haqooq-i-Khalq Party who are currently conducting an election campaign in Chungi Amar Sidhu have been working on envisioning hospitable infrastructure in this large working-class neighbourhood. These include vocational training and education centres, legal aid, water research centres and medical clinics. One of their endeavours that I feel should be expanded at a citywide level is preventive healthcare.

For years, doctors at the Lahore General Hospital near Chungi Amar Sidhu have been sharing grave statistics around respiratory and water-borne diseases in the area. Beyond treating existing illnesses, there are almost no resources that could help residents prevent the occurrence of illness. Lahore needs to take drastic steps to undo warnings that its residents are set to lose up to seven years of their lives because of exposure. Residents of working-class neighbourhoods need the most attention as most of these areas are directly exposed to industrial waste and heavy vehicular emissions.

If 2023 was the year that the city’s infrastructure expanded massively, I hope 2024 will be the year when the city’s residents can breathe freely. I wish for the villages and towns that have sacrificed livelihoods, environment and health towards the project of Lahore’s modernisation to benefit from hospitable infrastructure — one geared towards improving the lives of people.

“Respect heritage. Period.”

By Dr Ajaz Anwar

Artist & conservationist

Violations on World
Heritage sites must be noticed by UNESCO. — Photo: Courtesy of WCLA
  Violations on World Heritage sites must be noticed by UNESCO. — Photo: Courtesy of WCLA

The year 2023 has been particularly unlucky for the heritage of Lahore, because it was invaded by the WCLA. The ‘temporary’ government, which should have focused on holding general elections only, chose to tackle projects that were not their mandate. The ‘provisional’ chief minister allowed a long-retired bureaucrat to handle all the income-generating monuments of Lahore, including the Shalimar Gardens, Lahore Fort and the Tomb of Jahangir at Shahdara, rendering the Department of Archaeology non-functional.

All the regular staff of Archaeology Department was thrown out along with its ancient records. The staff braved inclement weather like the Gazans, sought refuge in the Allama Iqbal Museum on Mayo Road and held protest meetings every day, deliberating on possible legal action.

The WCLA was also entrusted with the task of restoring the 12 gates of Lahore. Even the Badshahi Masjid repairs were carried out by unskilled masons hired on daily wages. The Auqaf Department was never approached for permission either.

Such violations on the World Heritage sites must have alarmed the UNESCO. These sites are likely to be put on the ‘endangered’ list.

Who cares for the Charter of Venice which recommends only minimum intervention? There is no room to restore whatever has been lost. One can’t give a new look to tangible history. A building must reflect its age and history.

What was the idea behind giving control of these monuments to a setup that has no trained staff?

The income-generating units were explored for further exploitation. Large swathes on Shalimar Gardens were cleared for bridal photo shoots, for which large, fancy cars were allowed in via new openings punctured in the boundary walls. Even sofas and colourful curtains were used to please the newlyweds.

There was no one to check it all, because the violators had the consent (of the caretaker government).

A political leader was allowed to land his helicopter in front of the Diwan-i-Aam, which has no helipad, before he drove to the Minto Park to address a select gathering. A mishap could have harmed the World Heritage site.

Even Jahangir’ Tomb, whose surrounding garden consists of 64 parts (like the 64 paisas to a rupee), was not respected. Large portions of its ancient plants and other vegetation were tampered with, altering the original botanical scheme.

However, there was a silver lining. On a writ petition by a concerned citizen, the caretakers were barred from developing a skateboard park at the Lawrence Gardens.

In the New Year, I’d want the authority of Archaeology Department restored and respected. We must respect heritage. Period.

“…a Lahore where citizens actively engage in conservation efforts, from an individual level, like planting indigenous trees, to holding policymakers accountable”

By Fatima Arif

Communications, public relations & sustainability professional

underpasses, flyovers, and signal-free roads; and less trees. — Photo by Rahat
More underpasses, flyovers, and signal-free roads; and less trees. — Photo by Rahat Dar

Lahore has long been celebrated for its rich cultural heritage, vibrant streets and the welcoming fragrance of blooming flowers that adorned its landscapes. However, in recent times, a looming environmental horror has cast a shadow over the city’s vitality — the suffocating air quality.

The once refreshing air, filled with the essence of Lahore’s history and traditions, has become thick with pollutants, making outdoor activities a challenge, to frame it politely. The air quality index has reached alarming levels, impacting the overall wellbeing of the citizens, with children being particularly vulnerable to respiratory issues.

The deteriorating air quality not only poses a threat to the physical health of Lahore’s residents but also jeopardises the city’s cultural identity. The essence of Lahore lies in its bustling ecosystem creating a tapestry of sensory experiences. Lahori winters have so many memories to share with not just those who call it home but also with visitors. Yet, the smog and pollution are gradually robbing the city of its serene cultural-hub vibe, turning the once vibrant streets into hazy corridors.

As we step into 2024, my fervent hope is that the people of Lahore, along with the government, will make our environmental crisis a priority. It’s time for a collective awakening, an acknowledgment that the air we breathe is not just an environmental and health concern but a critical component of the city’s identity. Awareness campaigns, community initiatives and policy changes are essential to bring about a positive shift.

I envision a Lahore where citizens actively engage in conservation efforts, from an individual level, like planting indigenous trees, to holding policymakers accountable. The government, too, must take mitigating measures, by investing in sustainable urban planning, enforcing emission controls and providing affordable sustainable alternatives. By prioritising environmental consciousness, we can start the journey of reclaiming Lahore, nurturing not only its rich heritage but also the very air that sustains it.

“Stricter drug disposal regulations, take-back programmes and educational initiatives”

By Tahir Kamran

Historian; professor, School of Liberal Arts, BNU

River Ravi, flowing through Punjab’s capital, Lahore, has been identified as the world’s most polluted river due to pharmaceutical contamination, including substances like paracetamol, nicotine, caffeine and epilepsy and diabetes drugs. A study from the University of York revealed in 2022 that waterways in Lahore, Bolivia and Ethiopia were the most polluted, while rivers in Iceland, Norway and the Amazon rainforest were in the best condition.

The urban, industrial and agricultural sectors of the Punjab’s economy lack adequate infrastructure for managing and treating polluted water discharge. The problem is exacerbated by a dearth of effective policies and regulations. The Ravi basin faces heightened challenges due to its substantial population, numerous farms, cities and industries. Nationwide, we treat merely 1 percent of our urban wastewater, reflecting overall weaknesses in environmental management. The problems stem from policy gaps, regulatory shortcomings, limited monitoring and enforcement, technical constraints, low public awareness and inadequate investment, as highlighted in the country partnership strategies.

Environmentalist Afia Salam has expressed concern over the degradation of the Ravi, emphasising the need for effective implementation of waste disposal laws. The combination of industrial waste and chemicals has led to waterborne diseases and high mercury levels, jeopardising the drinking water supply.

Pakistan lacks effective legislation for waste disposal. Indian actions worsen the situation. Stricter drug disposal regulations, take-back programmes and educational initiatives are some of the proposed solutions to curb the pharmaceutical pollution.

The Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project was meant to construct a new city as well as a man-made channel and barrages along the Ravi’s course. One of its stated objectives was to regulate the water level, thereby conserving the remaining flow and restoring Lahore’s groundwater supply.

The project aimed at incorporating wastewater treatment plants to process sewage before its discharge into the river.

Hopes and aspirations...