When I finally returned to Lahore, the city I spent the better half of my life in, it broke my heart to see what had become of it, so much so, I decided to write an article about it.
Lahore is dying.
Disastrous skimming of the stars or just gross negligence, either way, Lahore is going through a severe environmental crisis. The Land Cover Project driven by the Geomatics of Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL,) Belgium, observed that in a period of just eight years, the provincial capital lost over 75% of its total tree cover. In numbers, that’s 8839 hectares of urban forest cover lost.
In the midst of its ‘infrastructure’ dream, the city has lost its charm. There are bridges, flyovers, high-rise buildings, wide roads, and brand new housing schemes where ring-necked parakeets used to wander around, and fields of mulberry, guava, and mango trees used to sprout.
Hammad Naqi Khan, the director-general of the World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan (WWF Pakistan,) said that an overpopulated, urban city like Lahore cannot survive rapid and unsustainable development, which exerts enormous pressure on existing natural resources, leading to water problems, pollution, and changes in the city’s temperatures.
If I’m completely honest, in my decade long stay in Lahore, I found the city to be rather unpleasant and rushed, so much so, it took my friends eight years to finally convince me to visit what they called the majestic Shalimar Gardens. “Majestic?” What a dump, I thought to myself.
My apologies. I wasn’t the smartest person when I first visited the Gardens, but I knew better the next time around. On my second visit to the centuries’ old gardens, I tried to see more than just what my eyes showed me. I observed that the Gardens were severely affected by development projects in the area. There was a flyover being built right above the Gardens that threatened to intrude upon their very existence.
The lesser-known gardens left behind by history: the Garden of Mahabat Khan, Naulakha Garden, Bagh-e-Dara, Anguri Bagh, Gulabi Bagh, Badami Bagh, Gardens of Raja Teja Singh in Chah Miran, Garden of Raja Dina Nath on Shalimar Road, Garden of Bhai Maha Singh near Shah Alam Gate; all have been lost in the name of ‘development’ and ‘infrastructure.’
The Anarkali Garden, Iqbal Park, and Lahore Zoological Gadens are fighting for their survival as well.
Maddening. During my last days in Lahore, the Jail Road underpass, which is complete now, was under construction. “Why would the government spend millions on a project that would probably need another update in a decade or so?” I used to wonder everyday, stuck in the traffic on my way to tuition in Liberty. “It’s hideous to look at, anyway.”
Not long after the project was completed, the Lahore Development Authority (LDA,) the organization responsible for the construction of the underpass, was taken to the court. A consulting engineer of the organization confessed that the underpass was ill-planned and that it should be replaced with a new and well-planned underpass soon. And just like that, millions of taxpayer money was lost.
Let’s not judge the government just yet, though, for Lahore’s rapidly increasing population has made such projects a necessity. Housing schemes are just another baggage the government has to shoulder for its failure to contain the population. Since there exists no law, whatsoever, which stops the conversion of prime agriculture and plantation lands for commercial or housing purposes, hundreds of hectares of land that could potentially be used for planting trees are lost. This is called the ‘opportunity cost.’
Opportunity cost is defined as the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.
Keeping in mind the concept of opportunity cost, let’s just imagine, for we can only imagine our government would take such a step, that the government went for the other alternative that is that it didn’t go for the mega projects like the construction of flyovers, underpasses, metro lines, and orange lines and instead, it decided to plant millions of trees where housing schemes exist today. Would it have solved all of our problems? No.
If the government had taken such a step, there would have been an acute shortage in the housing sector, and an acute shortage would have increased the demand, and an increase in demand would have skyrocketed the prices of the houses available in the city, and an increase in prices would have decreased the spending by the people, and a decrease in spending by the people would have brought the city’s economy to a standstill for the majority of Lahore’s business community is involved in real estate.
I used to live in Defence Housing Authority (DHA,) Phase V, and it used to take me around an hour to get to my high school Aitchison College, which is situated at Mall Road. “The government needs to rethink its plan,” I used to curse every morning. “I just cannot keep waking up at 5AM anymore.”
Pakistan needs to rethink how it plans its cities. Only poorly planned cities grow ‘horizontally’ rather than ‘vertically’ – which increases the country’s carbon emissions, leads to a loss of fertile land and increases commuting time and cost. Lahore has turned into a little province of its own and if it continues growing unplanned, it will only make itself an example of failed urbanization for the world to study about. And I, or any Pakistani at all, would hate to read about this city’s failure.
Our government needs to realize that Lahore is more than just steel and concrete. It needs to protect the environment for every tree that falls, every new car that is placed on the roads, every family that makes a home in a housing scheme in the middle of nowhere, and every garden that is destroyed for making space for a flyover, our ecosystem will suffer. The heat waves will only get more intense, the smog will only get thicker, the next rain will only submerge the city deeper, and Lahore will only fall harder in the eyes of the world.
At the same time, the government needs to invest in other major cities like Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Sialkot, and Sargodha and so, to stop the massive urban migration into Lahore. It also needs to introduce laws that limit the number of housing schemes that can be constructed in a period of five years or more. The government also needs to diversify the city’s dependence on real estate. It needs to give more power to public and private transport services in the city and reduce the number of cars on the roads somehow.
And we, the general public, must decide if we want to protect the environment and lead a healthy lifestyle or if we want to continue being involved or support practices that harm the environment of this glorious city.
About the writer: Shahzaib Tahir Awan is the CEO of The Bisouv Network and House of Entremuse. He is currently studying for B.A. Computer Science degree at Jacobs University, Germany.