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October 22, 2017

Despite its official unveiling, Orange Line’s fate is still unclear. It will remain so till the reserved court order about it is announced

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It was earlier this month that two engines and three coaches of the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) were brought to Lahore and handed over to the government in a ceremony at DeraGujjran -- the starting point of its route. The ceremony attended by people from different spheres provided an opportunity to Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif to express his resolve to go ahead with the project despite all odds and condemn the opponents.

Reportedly, the train will have the capacity to attain the maximum speed of 80 kilometers per hour and it is expected that the remaining coaches imported from China will also reach here shortly. It will operate on electric power so two underground power stations are also being set up for the purpose along the OLMT route.

The coverage of the above mentioned ceremony in mass media has taken many by surprise. They are unable to figure out how the train shall run on a track which is not complete at many points, and even the pillars have not been erected yet. These include the 11 locations where construction work was stalled due to the stay order granted by the Lahore High Court (LHC) as these are protected under the Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance, 1985 and Antiquity Act, 1975. Under these laws, any construction within close vicinity of these sites is prohibited and can be allowed only if certain strict conditions are met.

So, at the moment, what the government claims to be focusing on is the completion of civil works, repair and carpeting of roads near the OLMT route, ensuring smooth flow of traffic and decorating the entire 27-kilometre route complete with horticultural work worth Rs550 million.

The appeal filed by the Punjab government against this stay order was heard by the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) which reserved its decision around five months ago. The decision is yet to be announced and there is no indication of any timeline in this regard. So, the question isas to how the train will start running in the absence of a decision or if thedecision has come but is against the project.

The sites where construction work has been suspended include Shalamar Gardens, GulabiBagh, Buddhuka Awa, Chauburji, Zebunnisa’s tomb, Lakhsmi Building, General Post Office (GPO), Aiwan-i-Auqaf, Supreme Court’s Lahore registry building, St Andrews Presbyterian Church on Nabha Road, and the Baba Mauj Darya Bukhari Shrine.

Though the work along the whole OLMT is far from complete, the people living close to these heritage sites have been condemned to lead miserable lives.The above mentioned spots have become no-go areas with totally worn out streets, craters and abandoned construction material welcoming the pedestrians and commuters moving here. The residents of these localities think the government has expressed its anger over of the court order by making these spots look like hell and send a message that ordinary people are suffering the most due to suspension of work. Tab on construction work does not mean that the existing facilities should also be denied to the citizens, they say.

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Mudassar Khan, a local who lives close to SamanabadMor, is one such poor victim. He has become an asthma patient, thanks to the dust that the incomplete work at the nearby OLMT site is constantly kicking. He also complains loss of business and livelihood that the people in the area have faced over the years. "Our life has been affected in many ways," he tells TNS. "There are a few whose medical condition deteriorated due to financial stress and there were a couple of deaths as well that could be linked to it."

It is not clear to him why these spots were abandoned the way they were and the government has not ensured a smooth flow of traffic by reconstructing the roads scraped for construction work. "Even the requirement to cover these locations and stop dust from flying in all directions is not fulfilled," he complains.

Similarly, Kamran Shah, a small trader along Multan Road whose sales have shrunk due to the access issues for customers, says the extraordinary delay in construction has hit him real hard: "This isn’t the first time our routine life has been disrupted. Earlier, there were disruptions due to the widening of the Multan Road and in the name of the removal of encroachments."

Shahsays he knows many people like him who are finding it hard to make their both ends meet. "This may be due to a curse that the PML-N is in deep waters these days. The party leaders have been indifferent to our requests whenever we approached them."

According to academic and activist RaheemulHaq, "May be the government wants to run it [the OLMT] between the points beyond these locations as a pilot."

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He’s talking about the routes between Zebunnisa Tomb on Multan Road, for instance, and Ali Raza Abad on Raiwaind Road, and Shalamar Gardens and DeraGujjran are free of such spots and can have train run on them.

Haq wonders why it has taken the apex court so long to announce the judgment which was reserved a good five months ago. The case had been decided by the LHC and the SCP only heard the appeal filed against it. He thinks time factor is important because this delay has led to a lot of complications, financial losses, and displacement of a large number of people.

Adviser to Chief Minister and Chairman of the Steering Committee for OLMT Khawaja Ahmad Hassan denies using the word inauguration and terms it unveiling: "How can we give a date before the announcement of the decision by the SCP? But we are quite optimistic and hopeful about the outcome," he says.

So, at the moment, what the government claims to be focusing on is the completion of civil works, repair and carpeting of roads near the OLMT route, ensuring smooth flow of traffic and decorating the entire 27-kilometre route complete with horticultural work worth Rs550 million.

Similarly, the December 25 deadline the people are talking about is not for the train to be launched on its tracks, as clarified by Hassan. It’s for the completion of the Package II of the project which is going on at a relatively slower pace than other packages.

Whether it’s possible to go for alternative routes at the contentious points along OLMT route if the SC order comes against the government or there is some other way out is the question? Hassan avoids commenting on this but says with a smile on his face, "Who knows, we may give you a surprise." His optimism comes from the fact that the LHC order had not stopped construction work on the whole route and only raised concerns about the likely risks to ancient and heritage sites.

On the problems faced by citizens, Hassan assures these will be over soon as special instructions have been given to the concerned department/bodies to clear the mess and improve the roads around the OLMT route.

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