For the commuters of Lahore, the famous Azadi Chowk situated next to the Minar-e-Pakistan and close to the historic Badshahi Mosque has suddenly turned into a no-go area. The traffic coming down from different directions has been diverted to alternate routes. There are scores of labourers to be found, carrying out demolition work at the site.
A huge space has been earmarked outside the historic Lady Willington Hospital for the purpose of setting up an on-site workshop and a godown where steel structures and moulds can be produced. The facades of nearby houses and commercial plazas don banners carrying statements and appeals by the local residents and traders against this demolition.
All these properties face the risk of a partial or complete annihilation as the provincial government looks for ‘enough’ space on both sides of the road, right there at the Azadi Chowk, to go ahead with its much-touted, mega construction project.
The road leading to the Azadi Chowk presents an eerie picture of destruction, as if you were in a war-torn city, with its half-demolished buildings and debris.
The picture becomes bleaker as you approach the Chowk where all the action is. The owners of the buildings around the place have been given a deadline and asked to demolish the structures by themselves. As if to add insult to injury, they are being offered compensation which they say is "peanuts."
According to the proposed plan, the Azadi Chowk is to be moved a few blocks away from where it is presently located, close to the Baba Chatri Wala shrine, and made signal-free in order to facilitate the general traffic as well as the passage of the Lahore Metro Bus. There will be elevated roads on both sides for the traffic plying between Texali Gate and Timber Market.
Additionally, the road turning left to the Badshahi Mosque, the Lahore Fort and onwards to the Circular Road shall be closed. The traffic destined for the Circular Road will reach there via an elevated, semi-circular loop passing through the areas behind the Iqbal Park, the Sports Stadium, parts of the Badami Bagh Bus Stand, through the existing auto parts wholesale market which also faces demolition, eventually meeting the Circular Rd at Masti Gate.
As a consequence, the Iqbal Park, the Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort will have to share a common green area to be made into a huge park that shall house all these historical monuments.
Another likely casualty is the Lady Willington Hospital which has been there for good 83 years and is known as one of the best Gynae hospitals in the country. The servant quarters of the hospital have already been demolished and its signboards removed. The demolition of the outer wall has also begun.
The government representatives have offered to move the hospital building to a new location and shift all the machinery/apparatus. "This is not acceptable at all," says Dr Salman Kazmi, General Secretary, Young Doctors Association (YDA), Pakistan.
"Initially, the government had said it would only demolish the outer wall of the hospital but later it acquired the kitchen land as well. Today, they are talking about shifting the hospital to another location. Can anyone tell us why the government has failed to complete even a single health project over the past seven years?"
Dr Salman says the YDA is collecting necessary documents and may challenge the demolition of the hospital in the court.
"The gynae hospital caters to the needs of the poor and its sudden disappearance will leave the patients in the lurch," he adds.
"A couple of years back, the Punjab government had refused to accept USAID’s offer to renovate the hospital at the cost of $16 million but today it’s adamant to move it from its location. Why, because it wants to improve the view of the historical monuments and the Fort Road Food Street. The hospital building is an eyesore for them but can’t they realise how important it is for the common people?"
Azhar Siddique Advocate, Counsel for YDA, says he has the PC 1 of the project with him which shows the project is going to eat up a lot of hospital space. He says the Association is going to challenge the demolition which is in sheer violation of the Walled City Lahore Authority (WCLA) Act as well as the Antiquities Act which prohibit removing historic structures.
The Punjab Special Premises Preservation Ordinance (SPPO) 1985 protects the buildings which are 75 years old or above.
Siddique says the flow of traffic can be improved by constructing an underpass like the one constructed at the Model Town Mor.
In the midst of all protests and reservations, Babar Hayat Tarar, Special Secretary, Health, is said to have briefed the Prime Minister on the shifting of the hospital and the construction of a new building all of which shall cost Rs3 billion (approx.).For Ghulam Moheyuddin alias Heera, a resident of Bagh Munshi Ladha, Ravi Road, the unending demolition is highly disturbing. "People have been given a deadline and asked to demolish their properties on their own," he says. "A large number of residential properties have suffered but the promised compensation is only a fraction of their actual market price.
"Earlier, they said they needed a space of only about 30-40 feet to widen the road. But now it appears the expansion shall trespass even 60-foot at any place."
There’s another important issue to consider. These residential properties are inhabited by extended families under the age-old joint family system. It would be next to impossible for all members of a family to dislocate.
According to Moheyuddin, the entire project is being executed in a haphazard manner. "There is no electricity, gas and water [available to the residents] for the past few days, as supply lines have been severed due to the demolition process."
A Lahore Development Authority (LDA) official, requesting anonymity, tells TNS that funds have been earmarked to pay compensation to the stakeholders and it would be ensured that they get good prices. "But for that they will have to produce ownership proofs. The encroachers on state land or those without any evidence cannot be treated at par with the genuine claimants.
"The government is not targeting any one," he adds. "We only mean to improve the traffic flow around the Chowk and expand the roads to facilitate the ever-increasing number of vehicles. It is a public interest project and should be perceived as one by the masses."
Tariq Zaman, Personal Staff Officer (PSO) to DCO Lahore, says the execution of the project shall be carried out in phases and all the stakeholders shall be kept in the loop.
The government, he says, will ensure there are no excesses against any one. For example, he says, bus and wagon stands have been relocated from places where work is in progress. Later, they will be accommodated locations that suit them.
Waqar A. Mian, President, Badami Bagh Auto Parts Market, says the traders have been offered "Rs10.7 lac per marla, which is a joke. There are four ordinary-sized shops in one marla and each of them may cost around Rs1 crore.
"This means a shopkeeper will get a mere Rs2.5 million against demolition of his shop. The goodwill price and loss of business are in addition to this but then who cares?"
Waqar urges the government to accommodate them in a nearby location such as the Sports Stadium where a lot of shops are lying vacant.
In this regard, the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) has been taken on board and concerned officials have been contacted but "none of them is willing to talk to us."
WCLA DG Kamran Lashari has also been approached, via his brother Suhail Lashari, who is also the LCCI President. But "it seems he cannot help as decisions are made and finalised at a much higher level."
Waqar, who is also the President of the Lady Willington Patients’ Welfare Association (LWPWA), a body that runs on traders’ donations and provides free medical treatment to the poor, concludes by saying, "You cannot imagine how big a loss would the demolition cause to the masses.
"Being a government servant, the medical superintendent of the hospital does not share any information with us, rather he misleads us. But despite all this, we will do everything possible for us to foil this treacherous plan!"