Dr Ajaz Anwar argues against the proposed shutting down of Walton Airport, a place that has long served the aviation enthusiasts besides playing host to countless mature trees and many nurseries on its periphery
Not many would remember that the Lahore Omnibus, which plied its Leyland double-deckers, once comparable to any urban transport service in the world, was closed down primarily to grab the land of its depots. The yard along the Garden Town on Ferozepur Road too had been eyed by the entrepreneurs for long.
The project for a 500+-foot high block, to be funded by a party from the Middle East, had begun with deep excavations for its basement floors. The aviation authorities had their reservations and had refused to accord an NOC for it because of its planned height. For many years the abandoned site lay shuttered with warning signs. The motorists and other commuters had to avoid banging against its corrugated steel fencing and plunging into the deep abyss, especially at dusk.
Like many other projects, abandoned by the previous regime as unfeasible, this too was considered as lucrative. A way out had to be found by the powers that be. After all, we had been allowing them to come over and hunt down the endangered, visiting bird houbara bustard by the thousand, with the help of the equally endangered falcons sold to them by our own poachers.
The Walton Airport, which has served the aviation enthusiasts for well over a century, was proposed to be shut down for rank commercialisation. It was at this airport that Mr Jinnah had landed in August 1947, to take over the reins of the newly founded Pakistan as its first governor general.
An alternative airport is essential to handle emergency situations. This facility was home to many flying clubs imparting training to enthusiasts. There had been problems of noise pollution caused by the low-flying planes that needed to be regulated. Some low-flying planes piloted by trainees had in the recent past met with near misses and grim accidents. Better regulation was clearly needed for the affairs of the flying clubs as well. However, closing down of the facility is a negative approach that smacks of clandestine economic scheming.
The Walton Airport was spread over a huge stretch of land, with countless mature trees and many nurseries located on its periphery that provided horticultural plants and saplings to the citizens and acted as lungs to the city. The nurseries too had been operating rather clandestinely for over 30 years.
Occupying very large chunks of expensive land and paying only nominal rents the nurseries were using this area to propagate and multiply the plants. Some had built offices and double-storey houses within the leased green spaces. Actually, they should have used these as a sale point only and grown the saplings at some other farms.
As the news of the plans to remove these nurseries were released through various channels, the owners, alarmed at the prospect of their displacement, appealed to various quarters for protection. One of them appealed to the Lahore Conservation Society (LCS) to become a party in legal proceedings. Just when the prime minister had appealed to the public to help fight smog by planting a billion trees, the nurseries were invaded by brutal police force that dismantled ruthlessly any semblance of plantations. Thousands of flower pots were thrown away and the premises were evacuated.
The gardeners under assault ran for cover in every which way. Some passersby too made away with fancy floral plants. At the end of the operation, large banners printed on yellow flexes were pasted over the bordering fences announcing the possession of the land by the airport authorities.
This large fertile area had historically been a natural forest that kept the city green, provided wood, and was habitat for millions of birds, squirrels, bees, creepers and friendly insects. It was a source of a healthy ecological balance. Ancient texts, according to Majeed Sheikh, record it to be a very old forest that spread over miles.
In pre-electricity days, when wood was a major material of construction, this forest cover was of immense use. Wooden balconies and beams for roofs were affordable. Chander Rakha and Bhabara were later occupied by Model Town and Gulberg III extensions, but the airport strip remained intact. The old bungalow and its surrounding green strips that gave shelter to the refugees in 1947 were demolished to make way for the Baab-i-Pakistan designed by Amjad Mukhtar of the NCA Jami’at. It was never completed and the architect died. The landscaping of the monument was entrusted to Khwaja Zaheeruddin, the LCS convener, but never completed to the satisfaction of horticulture enthusiast Abrar Mumtaz.
A secret pact has been inked with the party to share 70:30 dividends while the prime land is worth many times the estimated price. High-rise apartments in Gulberg Main Boulevard have mostly remained unoccupied. A large ‘jungle’ of concrete is going to create problems of parking, sewerage, green belts and transport. With Lahore already plagued with traffic jams, bottlenecks and parking issues, no amount of traffic engineering would be able to deal with the crisis being created.
The signal-free corridor with multiple U-turns has already deprived the pedestrians and cyclists of their right to use the roads. Lahore has been declared the second most polluted city of the world. Any further elimination of its green cover would reduce the life expectancy of its citizens by increasing incidences of cardiovascular diseases.
The proposed, large-scale high-rise habitats would require commensurate water supply while the country’s capacity to store water is already under stress. Plans for mass plantation through the newly introduced Miyawaki, as announced by the CM, in which numerous saplings would share a restricted forest, is not likely to succeed in our ecology. Farmers are already protesting the forced takeover of their ancestral farms and grazing ground under the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project (RRUDP). They have threatened to launch an agitation with tractor trolleys as others are doing across the border in India.
Work is already under way. The Ambassador of UAE visited the Punjab CM and expressed his interest in building a five-star hotel connected to the Gaddafi Stadium through an underground corridor. Besides, investment in health sector has been offered. This would be a complete concrete jungle in the city of gardens in the coming few years, as pointed out by a columnist recently.
(This dispatch is dedicated to horticulturist Abrar Mumtaz)
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]