The Punjab government is all set to revive a mega city project on the Ravi riverfront. The million-dollar question being asked is whether the project will help overcome the myriad civic problems faced by the adjacent Lahore
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)’s provincial government is gearing up to revive a mega urban development project, originally conceived in mid-2000s by the then chief minister, Chaudhry Parvez Elahi. Under the project, an entirely new city will be built along the Ravi River, covering an area of more than 100,000 acres in the north of Lahore, with an estimated budget of Rs 5 trillion.
The new city is to be built on modern lines. But the question arises whether it will help us overcome the civic problems faced by the adjacent Lahore, such as overpopulation, messy traffic, environmental degradation and shortage of safe drinking water. It is also not clear whether this is going to be a commercial project aimed at urban sprawl in the form of high-rises, plazas and markets, or the ecological balance will be maintained, especially considering that the new city will be built on the riverfront.
Yet another question that begs an answer is regarding the sort of funding that will go into the project. Is the government seeking foreign investment or looking to rely on domestic funding?
Moreover, it remains to be seen if the new city will be accorded its own metropolitan identity or should be considered an extension of Lahore. When the project was initiated under Parvez Elahi’s government, it was expected to be developed along the lines of England’s Kingston upon Thames which is part of the Greater London. Later, Mian Shehbaz Sharif showed interest in the project and wanted to develop it like Dubai but was forced to shelve it in 2013 following his provincial government’s failure to get foreign investors interested.
The current government of Punjab is supposed to take off from where Elahi’s government left. Plans are afoot to develop Pakistan’s “most modern city” that will technically fall in the districts of Lahore and Sheikhupura. In this connection, Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar recently set up the Ravi River Front Authority (RRFA) with himself as its chairman.
Talking to TNS, Muhammad Mumtaz, the deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Planning, says the RRFA will work towards completing the project with a stipulated budget of Rs 5 trillion. The huge investment, he says, will come from the private sector.
He also talks about building a “large lake and some barrages” as part of the project, besides “14 zones, including residential, commercial, mixed-use zones, a medical city, a forest reserve and a central business district.
“The government is considering selling about 25,000 acres of riverfront to investors for business and cultural activities,” he adds.
It is interesting to note that the project initially involved the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) which even began work, circa 2013, on what was then called the River Ravi Zone Development Project (RRZDP). Early this year, too, Prime Minister Imran Khan is said to have chaired a meeting of Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project (RRUDP) in Lahore, in which he directed the LDA to prepare an integrated plan to meet the challenges of clean drinking water and unplanned construction. However, when contacted, Sheikh Muhammad Imran, the LDA vice chairman, said the Authority “has nothing to do with the project which is the business of the newly formed RRFA.”
Regarding the selection of the site, he said the mega project had missed clean water and green areas because the entire Lahore’s sewerage falls into the Ravi. “Scarcity of water and the pollutants are the biggest problems for the citizens [of Lahore] today. All-out efforts are needed by the government to deal with these on an urgent basis.”
He further said, “The catchment area of Lahore’s underground water is mainly the Ravi, which has very little river water at the moment and mostly carries the city’s sewage.
“Unfortunately, green and agricultural lands around Lahore have been destroyed to make way for housing societies. The Ravi is in dire need of a thorough revitalisation plan. The project is not being carried out on a distant island, so it will definitely impact Lahore. It would be best if we could build a system of wide and broad thoroughfares to ensure smooth flow of traffic.”
Leading architect/urbanist and researcher Rabi Ezdi notes, “If left to its natural behaviour, a river provides free ecosystem services, and within these, livelihood opportunities for people. These activities such as small-scale buffalo herding and fishing, largely complement the river system because traditionally they have been embedded within the ecology of the river, and are not an annexation of it.
The central question about the RRUDP is: do we see the river and riverine areas as a public trust belonging to citizens, or do we see these as commodities to be used for monetary gains to narrow business interests?”
Talking about ecological planning, she says, “In practical terms, the project area is the size of a small city, utilising prime agricultural land that is an encroachment upon the floodplain. Building on this goes against the principles of ecological planning. The Ravi’s floodplain must not be built upon because one, it serves as a watershed and performs numerous ecological functions, and two, it goes against the LDA’s existing policy which precisely states that agricultural land must be conserved and urban sprawl must be arrested.
“What the Ravi River actually needs is a thorough and deep-rooted revitalisation plan where both the river and its floodplain are conserved as natural watersheds, and the indigenous landscape and aquatic life are revived to whatever extent possible. Within this, only native landscape, basic recreation facilities of a non-invasive nature and benign livelihood-related activities should be allowed.”
Ahmad Rafay Alam, an environmentalist and lawyer, does not believe that establishing a city on the banks of the Ravi would benefit Lahore. “Nor do I see it as a feasible project,” he tells TNS. “Instead, building such a city on the riverfront, as announced by the government, would be detrimental to the whole city of Lahore and its citizens.”
He also says that in the past, “the Ravi has been a prime source of recharging groundwater table around Lahore. The situation, however, has entirely changed. The river, while passing by Lahore city, has been reduced to a trunk sewer. The groundwater is being recharged by untreated municipal and industrial wastewater that is highly contaminated.”
The writer is a senior journalist and can be reached at [email protected]