The fate of Punjab government’s flagship infrastructure project will soon be sealed – one way or the other. The petition against the Orange Train project passing through heritage sites in Lahore has trudged its way to the Supreme Court despite constant pressure and opposition from the government.

Dogged resistance from a gaggle of civil society activists has won a crucial High Court verdict though, which adjudged all Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports and Non Objection Certificates (NOC) issued by the government departments biased and hence inadmissible, putting construction around these sites on hold.

Although the government’s complicity, and as hinted by the High Court, mal-intent may be proven by the issuance of biased reports, it will have little impact on the present case; the fate of the project rests with the independent decision of the Supreme Court.

On Friday, the court seems to have delegated that responsibility a little further. It formed a two-man committee to the assess heritage impact of the project “based on current design in accordance with the international practices.” The committee comprises two technical and heritage experts – TYPSA Asian Consulting Engineering Pvt Ltd and Professor Robin Coningham, head of Archaeology Department UNESCO – the former nominated by the government and the later by the petitioners.

Set to complete its report within 30 days, the committee is a step forward from the assessors of the past. Accredited, international and most importantly independent, the committee’s recommendations will carry weight, and should be the primary guiding factor in the Supreme Court’s decision.

Unfortunately, this is not the only factor the court will have to consider. The government has shown little willingness to halt the project and has given little heed to the various stay orders issued by the government. Construction is going full steam ahead in sections of the routes that do not pass around the five heritage sites, and all ancillary actions – such as purchase of land, eviction of communities on the route and demolition of buildings are also progressing as scheduled.

Either the government is confident the verdict will go its way, or it hasn’t planned for the contingency that it doesn’t. The planned route will have to be shifted, bored deep underground or/and run through new, untouched communities – all of which bring with it new challenges and greater expenses.a