Lahore – What is to be Done?

By Anjum Altaf

In two earlier posts I had made the point that there are evidence-based methods to resolve the conflict over the proposed construction of an expressway along the Lahore Canal to reduce traffic congestion. In this post I suggest two specific approaches to achieve this objective.

Before proceeding to the concrete suggestions one should note that the judiciary, having intervened in the controversy, has given both sides time to resolve the dispute through mutual discussions. I feel this approach would prove inconclusive because this is not the kind of market transaction that is conducive to negotiations that are aimed at striking a deal, e.g., an agreement to sacrifice a number of trees that lies somewhere in the middle of the range mentioned by the two sides.

In fact, this kind of a negotiated solution might be worse than either alternative – as second-best solutions often are – neither fully relieving the traffic congestion nor leaving an organic greenbelt. The objective should be to make sure that we find the right solution. And to do so, we have to pose the right question. As suggested in the last post, the question that needs to be addressed is the follows:

How do we transport the maximum number of goods and people with the minimum number of vehicles at the lowest economic and environmental cost without reducing the level of economic activity in the city?

This is the type of question that trained professionals are adept at answering. The first suggestion is simply to take the plan proposed by the city authorities and submit it to an independent body of experts acceptable to the representatives of the citizens who have reservations about the proposed construction. I have little doubt that this would lead to a better alternative than buying a few years of congestion-free traffic at the cost of a unique cultural heritage.

The second suggestion is more ambitious. It would involve the city of Lahore initiating an international design competition to determine how best it can leverage its unique asset to trigger the renewal of the city. Many cities have used such competitions or specific events (like the Olympic Games or the World Expo) to anchor their redevelopment using the latest ideas and technologies.

It is reasonable to expect that either approach would emphasize the necessity of initiating Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) simply because it satisfies environmental, economic efficiency and social equity concerns. BRT requires more organizational competence than simply pouring concrete and gravel but it should not be beyond the ability of city administrators in Pakistan or other South Asian countries. It also requires putting the welfare of the citizens and respect for cultural heritage over the short-term infighting for political patronage, something that has held back BRT plans in Karachi for many years (see the column by Ardeshir Cowasjee).

A general point that emerges from this discussion is that citizens need to be protected from the technical incompetence of their political representatives. Subjecting proposals prepared by government agencies to expert groups would significantly reduce this danger and also serve as a spur to improve planning over time in the public sector if only to avoid international humiliation.

In this regard I had made a suggestion along these lines over ten years ago when a ‘new’ education policy was released. It was a very poor policy in my estimation and the ‘new’ new education policy released in 2009 is no better. In the meanwhile we have lost a critical decade and are still floundering.  As long as civil society can exercise no oversight over the quality of plans and proposals prepared by government agencies we would continue to fight rearguard battles most of which we would end up losing.



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