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An urban planning disaster in Lahore

On March 4, 2011, the chief minister of Punjab laid the foundation stone of the Kalma Chowk underpass on Lahore’s Ferozepur Road. According to press reports, the chief minister has directed the project be completed by August 14, this year.

The quick announcement and groundbreaking of this Rs2.3 billion project is an example of poor governance and disastrous and uncoordinated urban planning.

Ferozepur Road is one of Lahore’s most-travelled-on and heavily congested roads. In the late 1990s, then chief minister Shahbaz Sharif also commissioned a road-widening project on Ferozepur Road, which included the remodelling of Kalma Chowk. Just a decade later and proof of the fact that road widening doesn’t solve traffic congestion is the mess that is the Kalma Chowk crossing. But does this traffic jam justify the expenditure of such a large portion of the province’s estimated development expenditure for 2010-2011?

The Punjab government and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) are currently undertaking a $2.5 million survey of the traffic in Lahore, for the purposes of a transport master plan for the city. Does it make sense to commission the Kalma Chowk underpass when the final results of this study are still awaited? The government is already in the middle of a messy resettlement plan for the community that will be displaced by the development of the Bhatta Chowk interchange (the road that will take the rich from DHA to the airport) and seems to be unable to complete the Multan Road redevelopment project (the delays to which are reaching scandalous proportions). What, after all, is the reason for pushing this particular project through at this particular time?

The Punjab government also appears to be unaware of the law of the land. Under the Pakistan Environment Protection Act, 1997 (PEPA) and the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Review of IEE/EIA) Regulations, 2000, proponents of projects likely to have an adverse effect on the environment and, specifically, road development projects in excess of Rs50 million are required to submit an environment impact assessment (EIA) of the project and obtain environment approval thereof, from the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), after a public hearing. Failure to do so is an offence under the PEPA and renders government officials personally liable.

In 2008, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency issued an environment protection order (EPO) under the PEPA, directing the Capital Development Authority to stop all work on the Zero Point Interchange. The reason: The CDA had not filed an EIA for the project and was in violation of the law. Earlier, the Communication & Works Department (C&W) of the Punjab government was held to have violated the provisions of the PEPA when it undertook the construction of the Mall Road underpass in 2003 (Complaint No. 76/2003 titled Sumera Awan vs Government of Pakistan). Though no penalties were imposed, the C&W Department was given a warning by the Environment Protection Tribunal, Lahore. The warning does not appear to have made any difference: The C&W Department has begun construction of the Kalma Chowk underpass without an EIA. Under the PEPA, repeat offenders can actually go to jail.

Not five years ago, the Planning and Development department of the Punjab government proposed a Rapid Mass Transit solution for Lahore. It consisted of several lines to be developed for the purposes of rapid mass transit. Ferozepur Road was where one of the first lines was to be constructed. One wonders if the design of the Kalma Chowk underpass makes provision for a rapid mass Transit line because, if not, the money spent on the feasibility of that project will have gone to waste.
One of the features of the Kalma Chowk underpass, as reported by the secretary C&W Department, is that it will have provision for a bus rapid transit system. This is interesting seeing as Kalma Chowk is an important junction and buses will not benefit from the overpass because their stops will be at ground level.

Coming to the merits of the project itself, it is by now universally understood that expanding road infrastructure in cities does not solve traffic congestion. Investment in public transport (and removal of private automobiles from roads) is the only long-term solution. Three years ago, the Punjab government launched the Lahore Transport Company with the promise to import some 1,300 buses into the city within three years. Well, it’s been three years and no such buses have been imported. Meanwhile, the Lahore Transport Company continues to pay salaries to its many officers and employees. The construction of the Kalma Chowk overpass excuses the failure by the Punjab government to adopt any long-term public transport alternatives. This should not be so and taxpayers should be informed of the reasons why no public transport is being provided, as promised.

The joint JICA-Punjab government study of traffic in Lahore recently presented its preliminary findings. What was most interesting was the fact that Lahore does not have more than 400,000 cars (the figure of 2.2 million given by the Excise & Taxation Department is for cars registered and does not provide for cars that no longer ply the road). If these results are accurate, then it means that immense amounts of public funds are being diverted for the benefit of an extremely small segment of Lahore society. This is unfair, undemocratic and environmentally unsound (it’s the cars that cause the congestion and pollution).

It is very difficult to understand why this project is being undertaken at this place, at this time. It may definitely speed up the commute for many of the residents of Model Town or Garden Town. But it will have little impact on the 40 per cent of the city that commutes to work on foot. However, by not following the law, by ignoring good urban planning practices, by not coordinating with its various departments, this decision of the Punjab government will be nothing but a blot on the future of this already blighted city.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2011.

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