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Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project

Prime Minister Imran Khan has inaugurated the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project (RRUDP) in Lahore the other day. This is the third time the project or its earlier avatars during Chaudhry Pervez Elahi and Shahbaz Sharif’s tenures as chief minister Punjab has been ‘inaugurated’. That itself is a testament to our approach to planning mega projects. The previous two project plans, despite some merits, were dropped because the private sector sponsors dropped out anticipating lower than desired returns or the government found it not feasible.

In the continuing economic downturn, partly owed to the coronavirus but also the inept economic management of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government over the last two years, it is mind-boggling where the astronomical cost of Rs five trillion for the project will come from. The government’s facile and unprincipled answer is: overseas Pakistanis and black money (no questions asked). So much for the PTI’s much vaunted anti-corruption mantra.

Even if these hoped-for sources of finance come forward, the project has raised concerns regarding the absence of an independent, comprehensive socioeconomic and environmental impact assessment. The 100,000 acres to be used in the project means the floodplains will be used to build high rises, with profound implications for the already faulty river management and the ecological system. Imran Khan seems to be pinning his hopes for an economic turnaround on the construction sector with its 40 plus downstream and upstream industries. The RRUDP is the jewel in that particular crown. But the project ignores the current problems of Lahore, particularly those of its poorest citizens, in favour of the (enhanced) luxury living of the wealthy and powerful.

Lahore’s problems include a shortage of safe drinking water for the majority, a dangerous source of so many diseases. One of the reasons Lahore’s groundwater, the main source of both drinking water and irrigation, is unsafe is because over the years, River Ravi in the length that passes through Lahore, has been highly polluted by unrestrained discharge of untreated factory waste into its waters, as well as the discharge (through the storm water drains used as sewers, which discharge into the Canal and via it into the river) of human waste and garbage generated by the city. Not only does this polluted water find its way into the groundwater aquifer and thereby into people’s stomachs, its use to irrigate the vegetable and other agricultural products grown on the periphery of the city and that serve its needs, has been proved dangerous for human health.

Lahore also suffers from poor drainage, especially of the older parts of the city but certainly not confined to it. Even new urban developments (and the old city) confirm every monsoon and even in the winter rains the indisputable fact that a society that is the inheritor of the Indus Valley civilization has forgotten the art of safe water supply and drainage, which the (admittedly smaller) Indus Valley cities and urban settlements’ remains prove had been mastered thousands of years ago.

Lahore is a magnet for in-migration from the rural areas and small towns on its periphery. That is why the population growth rate of the city is above the national average. The pull of job opportunities, education and a better lifestyle is irresistible for the youth in particular of the city’s hinterland. Since successive governments have failed to create jobs and other facilities in the smaller towns surrounding Lahore, let alone the rural areas, this high population growth seems bound to continue, straining the employment market and services sector, and adding to population density and informal settlements (kachi abadies). Inevitably, the already under strain living environment will be worsened by this continuing influx.

Urban planning has been one of the poorest areas of governance in Pakistan. The woes of metropolis Karachi have once again been in the news after the rains. Lahore is smaller, but that does not mean it does not have similar problems to the largest city in Pakistan or even major cities in Punjab such as Faisalabad, Multan, etc. To take the example of Lahore, its physical constraints on growth are constituted by the river to the north and west, and the once upheld but now encroached upon (by Defence Housing Authorities amongst others) defence zone stretching from the eastern border 12 kilometers towards the city. That means unless radical intervention occurs, there is only one direction the city can grow: south. That has transpired over the years, leading to urban sprawl down the Multan and Ferozepur highways and infill between on the Raiwind Road and its southern reaches. This has forced the stretching of lines of communication and utilities, raising their cost.

The best solution would have been the creation of a new, twin city (on the New York-New Jersey model) on the western bank of River Ravi (with minimal works controlling the sheet flooding of a few inches in the Sharaqpur area), shifting Lahore’s airport to the western bank, throwing seven bridges across the Ravi (which would also have forced the builders to consider the ecological and floodplains issues of the river), developing employment opportunities in the satellite towns (e.g. Gujranwala, Kasur, etc) to damp down in-migration, and developing public transport according to the twin cities’ needs. Conservation and preservation of the cultural and historical built heritage of the city would have been a priority, given Lahore’s rich past.

Instead of this new RRUDP behemoth, even if the finances for it become fully or partially available, Lahore needs as a priority investment in its deteriorating infrastructure, water supply, drainage, education, health, environment, etc. Mega bricks and mortar projects like RRUDP privilege and benefit the rich, not the majority. For the latter, what matters is human development and public services, not the gaudy glitter of a Dubai-style huge and controversial megalith.

Urban planning is not rocket science. Enough experience has been accumulated the world over on how to think ahead of the dynamic growth process of cities and their management to provide a comfortable and enjoyable lifestyle for the majority of citizens, not just a fat cat elite. Pakistan, and in particular its urban planners, need to be educated on the inadequacies of their approach so far. They need to update their knowledge in the light of how their own urban plans have gone awry as well as the best practices the world over, gleaned from by now rich experience.

Rashed Rahman, "Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project," Business recorder. 2020-08-11.
Keywords: Political science , Ravi Riverfront , Economic downturn , Economic management , Imran Khan , Pakistan , GDP , IMF

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