Some years back, in Shahbaz Sharif’s time, thousands of trees in Lahore had to be cut to make way for a citywide road-widening project. When that happened, some concerned citizens did stand up and made some noise about it but it all came to naught. The argument used then was that widening of the roads was imperative to the city’s growth in that it was necessary to accommodate Lahore’s growing traffic. A similar situation has arisen in Lahore now. There are plans to widen the city’s famed Canal Road and this, according to Punjab environment department’s own survey, over 3,600 trees along the canal will have to be cut. This is a conservative estimate at best because it does not include those trees that may have to give way permanently because of the movement of heavy machinery and other equipment that will be needed for the project. Notwithstanding the fact that this figure is almost four times higher than that claimed initially by the province’s communication and works department, the issue takes one back to the whole development versus environment debate. It also serves to highlight the undemocratic and non-transparent way in which projects that ostensibly seek to provide citizens more amenities and services are planned and implemented.
For starters, why was no environmental impact assessment (EIA) — a legal requirement under the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act of 1997– done for the planned road-widening project? Is it because such a thing is considered frivolous and a time-wasting exercise or because the government knew that publicity of the trees being cut would raise a public furore? (One feels that it may well be a bit of both.) Why could not the government take into consideration the views of independent urban planners and conservationists when it drew these plans? Surely, they would know that the tree-lined Canal Road (or simply ‘The Canal’ in local parlance) is an indelible part of Lahore, that the trees along it are a part, so to speak, of the city’s collective subconscious. Of course, one is not saying that no development should be done simply because no trees must be cut but rather that a more holistic approach needs to be taken of development. Government planners should first understand that they don’t always have all the answers to everything and hence should consider the views of civil society. In this particular case, the heavens would not have fallen if the department concerned had invited the views of any concerned citizens or taken expert assistance from independent conservationists and urban planners. Also, officialdom needs to be told that some citizens — and there are quite a few of them — actually like trees as much as others like wide roads. In fact, one view of this whole road-widening issue is that the poor and marginalised sections of society, for whom the trees provided welcome relief in terms of shade, have been totally sidelined since wider roads certainly are not needed when one’s mode of transportation is one’s own feet or, at best, a motorcycle.
A well-meaning group of citizens has already organised a first rally against the planned project. Unfortunately, residents of most urban centres in Pakistan are helpless in the face of haphazard and unplanned city development taking place in their midst. This all is usually super-imposed on them from above by authorities that tend to completely ignore the views of the public and typically base their plans on the whims of some individual, usually holding high office. A balance between the demands brought on by Lahore’s development imperatives and the right of its residents to live in environment-friendly surroundings needs to be struck. At the very least, the EIA should be conducted by the government and made public.