Nostalgia bites

March 22, 2020

In a throwback to an imagined glorious past, a gate is being built in the outskirts — no longer the outskirts of Lahore — on Multan Road. The big sprawl of the city demands serious attention

The various governments in the past as well as this government have been obsessed with recreating the glory of the past. And the past for them does not extend beyond the Mughal Era in all its grandeur. The latest manifestation of this nostalgic craze is the building of gates in several cities of the Punjab and what better (or worse) place to start this throwback to the past than Lahore?

A gate is in the process of being built in the outskirts — which no longer are the outskirts of the city — on Multan Road next to the NAB offices. The Thokar Niaz Baig Entrance is almost complete but what purpose it may serve other than being a bottleneck and hence a traffic hazard is difficult to guess.

If one talks to the officials whose brainchild it is, or who are just carrying on the project because they have to do so in line with the responsibilities of their posting, it is meant to recreate the glory of the past or just a connection with the architecture of yore. The city was made the capital by Akbar for about ten years and then by Ranjit Singh for about forty odd years. This was the only time when the Punjabis ruled themselves after a about a millennium. Ranjit Singh was divided in his loyalties to Amritsar, the centre of his religion; Lahore, his capital; and Gujranwala, the town of his birth. He kept stripping various Mughal era monuments of their precious stones to embellish the religious sites in Amritsar.

Akbar had a wall built round the city and gates were constructed as exits and entrances to the city. These were shut at sunset for purposes of security. These were not ceremonial additions. The Mughal empire was vast and rich and at one time probably the richest in the world and its magnificence was quoted in the European classical literature. Its architecture was reflective of its grandeur and wealth but Pakistan is not a rich country. The prime minister while seeking help in the corona virus crisis created a distinction between “ameer mulk aur Pakistan jaise mulk” and we all know that it ranks among the bottom few on various indices.

It is about time that we started disassociating ourselves from the legacy of the great Mughal empire. We are not its inheritors. The centres of Mughal empire were Delhi and Agra. We were only a peripheral border fluidity. The Mughal rule had ended in the Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir (also Bengal) by the middle of the eighteenth century and these areas offered no resistance or a very fractured and disputed one a hundred years later in the so-called war of liberation –in 1857.

We are a poor, struggling country with limited resources and the wisdom dictates that we spend our meager resources wisely not squandering them in chasing a dream of an imagined past. The Mughal era monuments have been done enough damage, aesthetically and physically by the construction of ugly Metro Bus and Orange Train structures.

There is also talk (possibly a definite plan) to build a gate on the outskirts of Gujranwala at Chand Da Qila on the Lahore side. Gujranwala is a congested city with residential areas peppered with industrial units, some small, some medium sized. The city, probably the fourth largest in the country now is riddled with problems. For decades there has been an effort to move the cattle from the city as they cause all kinds of problems for traffic, hygiene and most of all sewerage. But the city authorities have failed to do so and the problems have compounded with traffic congestion, sewage blockages and sanitary degradations. The Gujranwala-Lahore section of the GT Road is in a very bad condition and needs instant attention. Its top has come off and its repair and possible upgradate can be of much greater use to the economy and the comfort of commuters than the splurging on projects with no usefulness.

In Gujranwala, as in Lahore and other cities, the focus should be on spending the resources on the civic amenities and making the city neat and livable rather than squandering it on ceremonial and symbolic projects. These vanity projects serve no one but the builders and contractors while creating additional issues for the residents of the city.

It has also been the dream of every government since the days of Zia ul Haq to engage the private sector in public projects. First, was BOT (build, operate, transfer). Next the fad was public-private partnership. This policy, too, has been mouthed now for decades but it is clear that it has not worked out as envisaged. Its success has been very limited as in the case of this gate where the private partner has pulled out after making the initial commitment. The entire burden now rests on the government.

Lahore has huge problems that need attention. The big sprawl of the city needs a revised master plan and a totally new approach to a world where the urban population is expected to outstrip the rural one. It has huge issues with traffic congestion and the supply of drinking water. Its sewage systems are choked, being inadequate, and it needs a separate drainage system. Furthermore the city is stifled by the lack of payments to the foreign company supposed to lift the garbage.

There is a whole issue with squatters, illegal settlements, kachi abadis and the only solution to that, and a massively faulty one, is that before every election the occupants are promised property rights and then these are subsequently granted by the winning party—to the convenience of both.

This is only legitimizing the wrong that has been done and or a fait accompli and is a poor reflection on those who manage the city. It is about time that a more judicious spending of shrinking resources is taken up and only projects addressing the civic problems of the people are addressed rather than the ones that may create more problems. The people at the helm should have their feet on the ground and think realistically rather than being hostage to a past that may not have been theirs. 

Nostalgia bites