Urban beastification

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Whether or not you are enjoying the tussle between the forces of development and conservation, you should see what the provincial headquarters of the Punjab has to endure in the name of urban beautification. Thanks to the wisdom and aesthetic benefactions of our government, there are now wild beasts ravaging public spaces in Lahore. You would be forgiven for thinking that those ghastly elephants and bullocks decorating our city would be the critters of which one speaks, for the real beastliness lies elsewhere. Of all the iconic emblems that could depict the spirit of Lahores diverse heritage along major transit routes, porcelain pachyderms must now join the ranks of Kims Gun or the Canal flotilla.

That such a travesty should occur can only mean that some government agency is working hard to promote the public interest. Enter the Parks and Horticultural Authority (PHA), an entity standing as oddly on the institutional landscape asan elephant standing on the roadside in Lahore. If you dont know the name by now, just wait a few years for the trees they just planted to grow into electrical and telecommunication wiring all over the city. Then you will certainly love them. For to know the PHA is to recognise its reputation for being a maali to the politicians and its lack of horticultural professionalism. Shall we not censure an institution with such a murky history?

Back in 1975, the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) was established to develop the city as a unitary authority with subservient agencies, including one responsible for parks and horticulture. A year later, the good legislators decided to enable the creation of similar development authorities in other cities by passing the Development of Cities Act. Though there was great wisdom to prefer unitary authorities over thirty years ago, power struggles eventually led to agencies like PHA breaking away and becoming a separate and distinct entity. And it was done by illegally enforcing the Development of Cities Act in Lahore diluting the authority of the LDA in one fell swoop.

Such a desperate measure was never contemplated by the law or the legislators, but who cares when you are destined to lay elephants. Even when it was threatened by local governments asserting their new-found authority at the turn of the decade, an anomalous PHA and its dysfunctional mother- now-turned-stepsister LDA weathered the storm to come out on top. After all, its not the former district government nazim who generates billions of rupees from regulating advertising in the city and still bares his tusks at commuters.

How the PHA can continue to do business under a one-page notification arising out of the illegal application of law is beyond the comprehension of one columnist, but citizens deserve to know how public sector organizations generate and expend public funds. While this is a fundamental principle in a democratic country, decision makers clearly prefer to keep us in the dark. Indeed, the oddity of the elephants speaks for what may have been had the community been involved in these whimsical decisions (or orders) to beautify the city.

Even though the political economy and development trajectory of the Punjab may appear to lack the capacity for reform of its institutions, our only hope to tame this wild beast is for decision makers to dissolve the PHA and send it back to whence it camean agency of the LDA. At least then we may have some transparency and accountability in decision making. Less courageous administrations may prefer to maintain the status quo, but at the expense of good governance and institution building. As long as we are stuck with entrenched aberrations like the PHA, it would also help citizens if such entities can give us something to taste and eat in addition to something we can see and loathe. A new and improved direction for the PHA would be to encourage urban agriculture in our city and capitalize on the efficiency of local production and consumption.

All over the world, communities have begun to realize the wisdom of growing fruits and vegetables in ones own community and are implementing programs to enable skyscraper rooftops, empty lots and public spaces to be used as farming facilities. While cities like New York are riding the new green wave sweeping across the world, others have had no choice in the matter. Cities like Havana in Cuba have for long been struggling under economic sanctions and trade embargoes that led to intensive urban agriculture practice for food security. Fidel Castros Green Programme has many lessons for our government and the PHA if they are willing to reform themselves and refocus their energies towards promoting the public interest instead of shameless profiteering in the name of urban aesthetics. Viva La Revolucion!

The writer is a consultant on public policy.