An alien aesthetic

January 10, 2021

As part of the Sohna Lahore project, scores of houses in a katchi abadi in Dheer Village were recently painted in an array of colours, so as to provide an aesthetically pleasing view from the international airport. Little attention was paid to the sensibilities and tastes of the dwellers

Residents must be consulted before such a project is undertaken. — Photos by Rahat Dar

127 houses in a katchi abadi in Dheer Village, by the Lahore airport, were recently painted under orders of the Lahore commissioner. The houses were painted in colours ranging from bright red and turquoise to green and yellow, with little attention paid to the sensibilities and tastes of those who call these houses home.

This was done as part of the Sohna Lahore project. Other abadis are to follow suit.

It is not difficult to understand such a thoughtless move in a country that has historically mistreated katchi abadis (squatter settlements). At best, the state’s relationship with them has been one of benevolent non-action; at worst, it has been one of violent intolerance. We should not forget the violence regularly unleashed on the katchi abadi residents as it was during the eviction drive in I-11, Islamabad, or the KCR demolition drive. I argue that moves such as painting houses without any consultation with the residents also constitute a kind of violence. It translates into an alien aesthetic being enforced, namely a rainbow palette for houses, which has nothing to do with the feelings of the residents. It also takes us further away from the goal of inclusive and participatory planning.

Katchi abadis, or settlements like the one in question, comprise low-income residents who are unable to afford formal housing options which are expensive and limited, to begin with. Architect, activist and writer Arif Hasan says the makeshift housing that shelters the low-income population is deemed illegal and exists outside the purview of state-administered services. Yet, residents of these localities contribute to both the formal and informal economy. The ascribed illegality of the settlements makes them vulnerable to evictions, demolitions and violence.

Residents of these settlements are in a permanent state of limbo with regards to their rights as citizens. In the said case, the main consideration behind painting the houses was to make an otherwise not-very-presentable host of buildings look better. The key question is: look better to whom?

The commissioner answered this question when he made the announcement. Houses in Dheer village, then, effectively got a makeover of sorts keeping in mind the upper-class sensibilities of what would make for an aesthetically pleasing view from Allama Iqbal International Airport.

To view this community only from the perspective of being within sight from the airport lays bare class biases and prejudices. It follows that if it was located elsewhere, like many other katchi abadis in the city, it would be completely invisible to those who decided to paint it.

The project can be seen as part of a larger trend of wanting to beautify and uplift cities by improving the appearance of buildings and public areas. Most notably, the Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA) has carried out such ventures in several cities. They use potted plants, painted walls and more to illustrate a commitment to improving public spaces and cities. To my mind, this is hollow uplifting; the real focus should be on improving municipal services, jobs and public places for any locality that is to be uplifted or beautified. Potted plants and coloured walls rarely do the trick towards making cities truly inclusive and equitable.

Perhaps, the beautification project at Dheer was inspired by the colourful Favelas of Brazil, which have garnered much attention internationally. Even if this was not the case, they make for an interesting comparison. Favelas, or slums, in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro are famously painted and decorated with murals to uplift the otherwise shanty, informal settlements. These colourful veneers are instated as part of community driven art interventions. One such project, titled Favela Painting Project, was implemented by two Dutch artists in collaboration with the Favela residents, and provided the local youth with an opportunity to learn a craft, earn money, and develop a sense of responsibility in their homes. The difference between the Favela project and the one at Dheer is that in the latter the element of community collaboration and participation is missing entirely. In fact, the residents of Dheer were appalled at the colour palette chosen for their homes, and rightly perplexed at the choices.

However, even the case of Favelas and their aesthetically pleasing murals and artwork contains a cautionary tale. Literature indicates that a certain exoticisation of the area has meant that it attracts tourists and onlookers who are voyeuristic. This means the Favela becomes an object to be beheld and scrutinised and observed as a site of poverty. The complex lives of the residents of such communities then become secondary, and these places become sites of the urban poor and wretched made pretty or interesting with some artistic interventions.

Other abadis are supposed to follow suit.

Such critique of Favelas, which might have served as inspiration for the project in Lahore, indicates that when planning interventions those in power must be very careful and sensitive to what can go wrong, and to what culture they might end up inadvertently recreating. Until those in planning positions are able to acknowledge the prejudices and class biases that run deep, we will continue to develop cities and beautify them for an increasingly narrow segment of people we consider to be ‘citizens’.

Moving forward, a first step must be to always consult the residents of an area before any project is undertaken. Participation of residents and consultation with them is a key tenant of any successful inclusive urban planning project or intervention, and must be the first step towards uplifting a marginalised area.

This is where empowered local bodies play a key role, and where their absence is most sharply felt. The focus must be on upgrading informal settlements in order to make them more livable, particularly amidst a public health crisis like Covid-19.

There are many positive examples to learn from in Latin America and South Asia. These include community-led initiatives and projects of incremental housing as well as slums’ upgrade. Such projects are much deeper than any painting plans which are largely superficial and detached from the pressing needs of residents of the settlements being revamped.

Come tomorrow, and the colourful houses of Dheer might serve as the backdrop to a picture taken by someone from the International Departures Lounge of the airport. Then we shall know beyond a shadow of doubt that these development and beautification interventions are certainly not for residents of katchi abadis, like those in Dheer Village.

The writer is a lawyer working as a researcher. She is interested in cities, gender and the law

An alien aesthetic