If the much-awaited decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan on the Panama Leaks case is being portrayed as a historical verdict that will lead to accountability of the highest public office of the state, then, the decision of the highest court of law in the Orange Line Metro Train case can expected to be a landmark judgment for upholding the fundamental principles of heritage preservation and participatory development in Pakistan.

With the start of the CPEC corridor, mass transportation projects such as Metro bus services have hit the large cities in Pakistan. Believing that they have perfected the art of selling high visibility projects to voters while earning sufficient corporate profits, the Pakistani politicians are going ahead with plans to multiply their political and economic gains with full speed.

The 27.1 km long Orange Line Metro Train project in Lahore is another mass transit system in Pakistan. It traverses the most densely populated parts of the city, but its social and cultural impact on the historic urban landscape of Lahore has not been given due attention.

Without much care for the massive human displacement and threat to the built heritage of Lahore city, the Orange Line project has used the most primitive form of underground construction methods — the cut-and-cover method that involves digging a semi-underground tunnel by cutting the ground at a street-level. This method was abandoned by London Underground systems in 1825, given the large-scale demolition of buildings and human cost of displacement.

Tragically, the cut-and-cover method used by the project is the prime cause of the ongoing demolition in a 1.7 km stretch inhabited by over 100,000 people. Most of the city’s historic sites, including World Heritage Sites such as Shalimar Gardens, are located along this stretch.

Rather than using the latest technology of deep tunnel boring, employed in every single underground transport system in the world today, in which tunnel boring machines (TBM) excavate tunnels while boring through earth and stone with limited damage at street-level, the Punjab government went ahead with the destruction of the urban cultural landscape of Lahore.

In a similar scenario, Indian engineers of the metro train project in the historic city of Delhi (called the Heritage Line) had chosen to go deep underground through TBM to save their heritage, including Red Fort or Lal-Qila. Sadly, Pakistani engineers from NESPAK designed the Orange Line largely over the ground to save project’s finances at the cost of mass human displacement as well as an irreparable loss to national heritage.

The apathy of society, including the fashionable elite, public intellectuals and artists towards the drama of death and destruction unfolding right before our eyes is overwhelming. A self-serving regime of urban planners, architects, engineers, economists, and lawyers colludes with large corporations and the political elite, and turns the human and cultural cost of urban development into a small variable of compensation, in token return for a complete annihilation of our human and cultural landscape.

This is what lies at the heart of the ephemeral urban disaster caused by the Orange Line project in Lahore.

The complicity of modern urban professionals with the land mafia and political elite is further consolidated by the conspiracy of silence towards the draconic laws of the state such as the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, which gives full legal cover to land grabbing in the name of ‘public proposes’. The reference to the public good that gives the land grabbing act a moral force is never defined in the law.

If the Constitution of Pakistan, in line with UN Declaration of Human Rights, gives the fundamental right to hold property, then why the legitimacy and indiscriminate use of infamous Land Acquisition Act by successive governments over the decades, to deprive people of their property and livelihood, is not questioned by advocates of human rights and civil liberties? While this Act is the primary cause of public discontent and development-induced displacement of millions of people in Pakistan, no serious effort has been made by the legislature to amend it.

While the business thugs and land mafia profit by draconian laws of the colonial era, the urban elite of Lahore sits quietly by the side, mourning the tragedy from the safety of their sheltered and shielded lifestyles. The discourse of national development sounds so hollow when it continues to demand supreme sacrifices from the people, but without giving them their constitutional rights and privileges in return.

Whatever may be the outcomes of Supreme Court deliberations, it is evident from court proceedings that if Orange Line Metro Train project is truly believed to be more than an election stunt, then certainly a large number of engineering solutions to the problem can be gainfully employed to save the historic urban landscape of Lahore.