Master of none

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Human settlements in Pakistan seem to follow a similar trajectory. The larger they get from the populations swelling inside them, the worse they become. At a time when our towns and cities are proving themselves unmanageable even by the (seemingly) strictest of administrations, it appears that it is still possible to plan for urban areas of Pakistan before they turn intourban areas of Pakistan.

The role of planning in urban development has always been our Achilles heel, so it was with a degree of cautious optimism that one recently attended a seminar on a new transport master plan for the city of Lahore. Organised by the Punjab Transport Department in association with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, the seminar was essentially an event to showcase the analytical and preparatory work being carried out for the master plan, and to invite comments from stakeholders.

Having served for several years in the provincial Planning & Development Department of the Punjab, the value of transport planning is clear to one columnist. But if we sift some of the dust off the planning documents in government archives, we would see that this isnt the first time a master plan has been developed for the good city of Lahore, and this certainly wont be the last.

About ten years ago, the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) spent a lot of money preparing an Integrated Master Plan-2021 which was approved by a representative district council. Today, that rather voluminous document lies dormant and the fate of its analyses and recommendations appears to be sealed. Enter the Lahore transport master plan and a sense of foreboding and dj vu.

One of the problems we face is that there is no authoritative legal definition of what a master plan really is; and we have no procedures for preparing, implementing and enforcing it. Consequently any government agency can spend hundreds of millions on making such a document in any way, shape or form that suits the competent authority often giving underwhelming results.

Though we may sometimes doubt the quality of technical input that goes into preparing a master plan, it is hoped that the studies and surveys being carried out for the transport master plan provide the empirical evidence that can bridge the divide between research and the praxis of urban development in the provincial headquarters of the Punjab. It is an encouraging sign that a nation renowned for its meticulousness and efficiency is guiding our decision makers. Indeed, the good news is that Japan is helping us prepare a master plan. Unfortunately, the bad news is that Japan is helping us prepare a master plan.

The knowledge that this is a country equally renowned for selling us automobiles signifies that once again we may be embarking on a process of planning for cars, not people. Unless international cooperation agencies have stopped following the global economic and trade policies of their originating governments, there is no reason to believe otherwise. And that is precisely what the studies and surveys at the seminar showed a lack of attention to those who rely on non-motorised means of transport. While one hopes that the transport master plan is sensitive to the needs of pedestrians, tonga-wallahs and bicycles, it could be that the future holds no place for them. Only time will tell if the transport master plan is comprehensively prepared, but glimpses of failure in its implementation can be seen before we even get to that stage.

First in the line of opposition would be actual citizens of Lahore who are the non-transferable, but still disposable, assets who no one really listens to. Without the ownership of the diverse communities spread all over Lahore, the pages of the transport master plan will be good only for serving roasted chanas in.

The second line of defence against a sustainable transport master plan is put forward by our good friends at the National Engineering Services of Pakistan (NESPAK) who would like nothing better than to pour concrete all over the country. Like a cult dedicated to brick-and-mortar, NESPAK has been rubber stamping infrastructure development projects without addressing the larger policy and institutional constraints prevalent in the public sector. Their success in advocacy can only be expected to lead to vast amounts of taxpayer moneys being diverted towards building bridges and underpasses that we cant afford and dont need.

And finally, our leaders cant get by without ad hoc announcements to gain political mileage. Even the Punjab government has decided that it cannot wait for results of the transport study to come in and has already announced a project for infrastructure development at Kalma Chowk. Unless the government has powers of Deep Blue and Watson combined, such firm proposals appear to lack any actual analysis and can only neutralize or worse derail implementation of the master plan.

If only the government could ensure ownership of citizens, master plans would be both relevant and enforceable, and unfortunate situations would never arise. Until this occurs, one remains unmoved.

The writer is a consultant on public policy.