Travails of the poor residents of Maharaja Building, who are being forced to leave their ancestral abode to make way for the Orange Line Metro Train
The city had its first spell of summer rain on Sunday last. The weather outside was awesome but the atmosphere inside the Lahore Press Club grew a little tense when a woman being forced to evict her single-room flat on the ground floor of Maharaja Building broke down while narrating her ordeal.
She was so distressed that one of her companions had to come on stage to console her and ask her to stop talking.
Two days later, when I went to interview the woman in her flat I came to know the true strength of her character as she candidly spoke about her struggle as a single working woman. She can weep, she can laugh, and she can speak for her rights; that’s how she described her strength which, she said, she had inherited from her mother.
Akram, who studied up to the graduate level, said she had worked as a teacher at a girls’ school and also as a maid at a doctor’s house and a nurse at a hospital. She has been living in this flat ever since she bought it in 2001. She works not only to meet her own expenditures but also to support her siblings who are living back in her home district. She fondly talked about them, showing me their pictures and telling how much she loved them, especially her mother. She said, "If I am forced to evict this home, I will resist it till my last breath because all those whom I support will also become homeless."
She added, "So far so good. But I am not going to give up and leave this place, come what may. I’ll fight for my home and shall not accept the meagre amount being offered in the name of compensation; it cannot buy me just a few yards even in a distant village of some backward district."
One of Akram’s neighbours joined in, as she was talking about the many odd jobs she had had to take up over the last few years after she was harassed, mistreated and fired from her regular job as a housemaid. She paused, and then asked the man to narrate his part of the story. The latter began with the historical importance of the building, the land it was built on, and how their grandparents had been allotted flats when they migrated here after 1947.
"The land on which this building stands and the large area around the shrine of Mauj Darya was gifted to Baba Mauj Darya by Akbar the Great," he said, referring to a decree by the Mughal emperor he had heard about from one of his friends. "This [building] was built way before 1947 and it deserved to be preserved as a heritage site."
He lamented the fact that many such buildings in the area of Old Anarkali had already been demolished by the government -- Lahore Development Authority (LDA) -- to make way for the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) instead of preserving them as monuments of the past.
There are more than 30 families living in the Maharaja Building who are under stress because of the fear of displacement. They have written an open letter, a copy of which is available with this scribe, to the Prime Minister requesting him to take notice of their plight as they were being forced by the LDA and TEPA officials to vacate their homes despite the fact that it (the Maharaja Building) was far away from the proposed route. All these families living in the building are said to have already received Rs1 million offered by the government as compensation money. Only Shabana Akram has refused it because she thinks the amount is not enough.
According to an estimate by the Society for Conservation of Lahore (SCL), the number of people rendered homeless as a result of the OLMT project stands at around 8,000. And this is talking about the Old Anarkali area alone.
There are many such examples along the 27-km long route of the OLMT where the people have been forced to evict their homes in return for meagre amounts of money.
While people like Akram and her neighbour may seem to be primarily concerned with the loss of roof over their heads, there are other voices such as the SCL which has serious reservations about the proposed route and design of the OLMT project. They fear that if the current plan is carried out without incorporating their suggestions it could cause irreparable damage to various important architectural monuments and heritage sites.
Back at the Lahore Press Club, Maryam Hussain, an NCA Professor and a vocal activist of the SCL, took the occasion to give a detailed presentation, listing all threatened heritage sites. "We are seriously concerned about at least a dozen historic buildings along the heritage corridor which are going to be badly damaged if the OLMT design and technology is not changed," she said.
According to Prof Hussain, these heritage sites include Shalamar Gardens (1642; World Heritage Site), Budhu da Awa (1628), Gulabi Bagh (1655), Lakshmi Mansion (1935), General Post Office (1887), Supreme Court Registry Building (1880), Aiwan-e-Auqaf (1880), Shah Chiragh Shrine (1657), St. Andrews Church (1860), Mauj Darya Mazar (1591), Chauburji (1646), and Princess Zeb-un-Nisa’s Tomb (1649).
The Punjab government, on the other hand, sees the project as one which will revolutionise the mass transit system. It is being sold by the government as a symbol of modern architecture and Pak-China friendship, ignoring the fact that it poses a serious threat to at least a dozen architectural wonders of the Lahore city and an immeasurable loss resulting from human displacement.
The Punjab government is accused of violating the Constitution of Pakistan, heritage and environmental laws and also the legal obligations under the UN international instruments Pakistan has ratified. Chinese investors are reported to be pushing the government hard to remove the legal hurdles as early as possible and to expedite the construction process. The case against the current design and route of OLMT is still pending a hearing in the Supreme Court.
A large number of conservationists, social activists and others have pinned their hopes on the SC. Now, will they succeed in saving the said heritage sites? Will the government consider increasing the amount of compensation money? Will people like Shabana be able to retain her home? It all depends on the SC ruling which is expected within the next few days.