Will people have a say?


In managing and governing Lahore, citizen participation is of paramount importance, but will it be sought is a point of conjecture


Urban governance and management in Lahore, as in other cities of Punjab continues to exclude a large number of people from participation in decision-making and enjoy the benefits of development. If urban governance is the way decisions are made, the decision-making about public issues and laws in the cities of Punjab remains exclusive domain of the powerful politico-bureaucratic elite, planners’ and businesses’. If management is the way decisions are implemented, the implementation of policies and decisions and delivery of services is either not undertaken or undertaken haphazardly by the bureaucracies of all tiers. Unfortunately, the urban governance in Punjab remains as it was during colonial times but the urban management has deteriorated a lot.

Of all the major decisions of government of the Punjab about Lahore, such as the Metro Bus Service, the River Ravi Front Project, the LDA Avenue II, even the legislatures have not been consulted, what to talk about ordinary people.

The way these decisions are implemented, which is the domain of urban management, is worrying. The roads are dug, the lands are acquired, and the places are torn apart like invaders do. The methods of construction and development are hazardous: only the dust from construction work gives lethal diseases even to those who travel even in the air-conditioned cars. The hundreds and thousands of citizens who have to spend many extra hours to travel to work because of route changes during roads construction is a painful story. These examples are of routine administrative matters. The situation of governance and management in the areas of emerging challenges is worst.

Lahore’s urban governance is still reminiscent of the colonial era and only people can bring about change.

What are the emerging areas of governance and management? They comprise governance and management of: climate and environment; security; migration; and, public spaces. Climate change has posed new challenges our urban governance and management systems are unprepared to deal with. Take the example of urban floods which drown basements, shops, homes and stores in Lahore. Every year a lot of property and a number of lives are lost owing to our inability to drain rain water. Of all the institutions concerned with protecting environment either do not understand the urban environmental catastrophes we have fallen into or unwilling to act. Do environmental agencies responsible for governing and managing urban environment realize the drastically low number of per-capita green space in Lahore? Do they realize the ever increasing number of the citizens of Lahore will be unable to breathe in few years?

As Lahore’s underground water is slowly becoming poisonous with arsenic and seepage of sewerage, the nature will have no choice except to take revenge from all of us for degrading it. The factories in Lahore, even those who produce deadliest of the chemicals, are free to throw untreated waste into the drains and sewerage of Lahore. Will our governance and management systems do something to deal with the poisoning of everything called natural? It seems difficult.

Let us come to the governance and management of security—just the physical security, the barest minimum of all the securities needed to survive. My female students of urban policy course at Forman Christian College tell me, every year, that they fear leaving their homes after evening. A few days ago someone snatched mobile phone and purse from a female student of my college at a petrol station amidst many people. Even police was around the place. When she asked the police to chase the snatcher, they simply refused. Is this the state of crime management? Terrified, she has lost trust in whatever governance and management of cities we have in Lahore. The agencies related to providing security have simply given up their functions. Just think about the proliferation of hundreds of private security agencies owned by the ex-military men. From shops to markets to schools to homes, people have turned to private security. If everyone has to buy security privately, what is the government for? Is not it really scary?

The governance and management of migration—especially of women—in Lahore is another big challenge. Every year more and more young women are coming to Lahore from all across Punjab to study, to find work and to stay. These women have aspirations of social mobility and progress. The city is highly insensitive to their needs as if migrant women are not the citizens of this country. As a result of this indifference, most of the migrant women have to live in pathetic, unregulated, exploitative private hostels. Imagine three to four women living in a room as tiny as a box of 10 feet by 10 feet for 5, 000 to 8, 000 rupees each for a month. Home owners in the city do not find migrants trustable enough to take their homes on rent. The transport arrangements hardly cater to the needs to women, local and migrant alike. The migrants are the main targets of the suspicions of our police to maintain an impression of the working of law and order. How Lahore will grow in trade and employment if it doesn’t treat migrants with respect and dignity? Why will not the best of the minds in Punjab prefer to leave this country if they feel intimated in the best of their cities? It should change.

Of all the major decisions of government of the Punjab about Lahore, such as the Metro Bus Service, the River Ravi Front Project, the LDA Avenue II, even the legislatures have not been consulted, what to talk about ordinary people.

No model of urban governance and management can work effectively if a city has no adequate number of public spaces. As a lot of land in Lahore is being covered either with asphalt or bricks and cement, the public spaces are being eliminated at a fast speed. It seems the governance and management model currently in vogue in Lahore is working in tandem with the interests of businesses. Many of the urban spaces which were accessible freely to the people of Lahore have either been priced or converted into private spaces. The examples of Anarkali and Lakshami chowk come to mind. The way Anarkali is being gentrified has become a way of excluding the poor and lower middle classes from public life. Most of the restaurants have furnished, installed glass doors and increased the prices of their food. Some of the regenerated buildings have given the bazaar an ugly look. Even the Pak Tea House does not look like a place for the literati anymore. Thirteen years ago, I could hardly imagine that people will visit Pak Tea House to eat fast food and cold drinks. It is a pity! Current model of urban governance is promoting gentrification of public space which is nothing but exclusion and is an anti-democratic act. Urban management is unconcerned with the exclusion of majority of the people from the public life of the city.

The issue of public space is intricately linked with the larger issue of democratizing Lahore, to make it safe and secure, innovative, competitive, alive and exciting place. The social change or transformation Lahore is passing through can become a smooth and meaningful process if we have enough public spaces everywhere in the city where people from across the social diversities come together and express themselves. The street and mohalla level public spaces such as tharras, corners, takiyas, baithaks and deeras can contribute immensely to make these places safe for everyone. Especially for children and women. Unfortunately, most of the high-density areas in Lahore do not have any parks or open spaces. It is actually these areas and people in them who need the parks and the public spaces the most. Shrines used to be the freely available and inclusive urban spaces in the city. Since the last ten years or so, the authorities in Punjab have done their best to reduce limit access to these spaces under various pretexts. Not only shrines are closed early in the night but they also restrict women’s visits to the graves.

A lot of this happens because the urban governance and management ideas and practices of Lahore are settled at a distance from people. Both of them are constituted and practiced by the tiny elite coming from the privileged social backgrounds. It seems hard that these elite will voluntarily include people to reconstitute ideas and practices of urban governance and management. The enactment of Local Government Act 2013 is the best illustration of this nexus. Instead of giving people of Lahore voice in making decisions about their city, the Act reinforces the position of provincial rulers and bureaucrats in decision-making about Lahore. But this state of the affairs can be changed by the citizens of Lahore themselves by agreeing on nothing less than a role in the governance and management of the affairs of their city.