THE ORANGE LINE: Between heritage and development

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Post-colonial societies in the developing world have a complex relationship with their heritage institutions; while they are known as cultural sites of preservation, they are also in fact nodes of representation. Preservation and representation become the cornerstones of an intricate sense of urban place and national identity in today’s highly globalised world. But in an era where economic development trumps all, socio-environmental conservation becomes a sore topic of discussion between relevant stakeholders.

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Lahore metro, the country’s first planned mass rapid transit train system, was first introduced amid multiple concerns, the chief being an anticipated threat to the old heritage sites of the historical city. What was a concern then is now very much a reality. While the pet project of the Punjab government introduced a more cost effective urban transit system in the shape of the ‘Metro Bus’, it is the proposed ‘Orange Line’ that is causing either mass anxiety or elated euphoria amongst city dwellers, depending on what side one subscribes to. Since its inception, the planned mega-project has triggered a pendulous legal dispute between the local governing bodies and civil society members and organizations. The 27km long track, starting from Ali Town and going all the way to Dera Gujran, has allegedly put about 26 historical and protected monuments at risk, according to experts; Shalamar Gardens, General Post Office, Lahore High Court, Mauj Darya shrine, and Chuburji being the most imminent. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had to be explicitly called upon to help halt construction within 200 feet of registered world heritage sites.

While the court granted a stay order against the construction in January of this year, the local government has since been waltzing on its own tune: without heeding the judicial ruling, without listening to the civil society uproar, without taking into account the UNESCO directive, and without taking any and all well-informed recommendations on the subject; all in hopes of transforming Lahore into ‘Paris’. In fact, the Orange Line has been affiliated with the CPEC project to lend it some form of legitimacy and public approval. Alas, the high court recently reiterated its ruling in August.

At the cost of $ 1.6 billion, the Orange Line aims to cater to the transport needs of a growing city by ferrying up to 30,000 passengers per hour. While it is the prerogative of the Punjab government to promote clean air and healthy living by minimizing the number of vehicles on the road, the project that aims to cut through the city’s main artery will also encourage income saving, build new businesses, transport labor over long distances, encourage economic growth, and make the city pedestrian friendly. The petition against the project however hinges on the undemocratic means adopted for the construction, that have by passed normal law making procedures, legal frameworks, and legislative filters.

In truth, mega projects are multi-faceted with various stake holders involved; from the top to the bottom. Where the bird’s eye view creates policies and designs projects, it is at the grass root level that these projects are ultimately manifested and experienced in actuality. There are things that can be termed beneficial for an urban agglomerate in the long run with rising populations and moving labor demographics, but on the other side of the fence, gentrification can displace communities due to a lack of resettlement and compensation, disrupt social and economic infrastructure by rezoning commercial and residential areas, remap physical terrains by creating traffic congestion in other areas, change historical/cultural affiliations by constructing on or near inscribed heritage sites, and by doing so create an enduring urban anxiety. The average citizen, whether directly or indirectly affected by the construction of these projects, wants a say in how the city around him develops. Yet in an environment of authoritarian urban decision-making, it is difficult if not downright impossible to get individual concerned voices acknowledged.

Urban development interventions anywhere in the world are done with an eye on sustainable practices that aim to focus on the needs of the people as well as the morphed terrain they live in. While the Orange Line will cater to the mobility needs of parts of Lahore, the project does not take into account the mobility needs of the entire urban population. Although the train track passes through low income areas of the city thereby providing cheap transport, it has not encouraged the city’s car owners to give up their commute for a public transit. It has also been said that the Orange Line has become a politicized tool in the hands of the incumbent government who want to use it as a ticket to the next general elections. It is not only visibility of built infrastructure that has colored that view but also the conditional compensation given only to communities that belong to the government’s voter base.

The heritage of a city is not just its historical sites and cultural monuments but the ways people habitat and experience life around those structures. Hence the challenge faced by developing societies today is how to facilitate collaborative efforts of meaningful cultural exchange between the three camps; the conceptual analysis of cultural and social heritage or termed as the ‘conservationists’, the variety of applied global operational contexts also known as the ‘pro-development’, and the proponents of both. World-class cities might be made on the backs of people but they are maintained on the shoulders of citizens. It is essential that development take place, but the new means nothing if the old cannot be consolidated into it; the way forward is a synthesized form of social, political, cultural, and economic advancement.