On Friday, the Lahore High Court ordered that the construction of the Orange Line Metro train project in Lahore be stopped near eleven heritage sites in the city. The court’s judgment came after months of campaigning by activists associated with the Lahore Bachao Tehreek, the Lahore Conservation Society, and other civil society groups, who have long argued that the Punjab government’s approach to infrastructural development in Lahore - be it the widening of roads running along the city’s main Canal or the construction of the metro bus line – is one that smacks of authoritarianism while also demonstrating a complete and utter lack of concern for the impact its projects have on the environment and the city’s historical and architectural heritage.

The decision to halt work on the Orange Line should be welcomed. While there is every reason to believe that the relief offered by the High Court may prove to be short-lived, given how the government has been able to circumvent or have such judgments overturned in the past (as was the case with the signal-free corridor that was constructed in Lahore last year), it can only be hoped that this pause in construction will provide space for some introspection on the part of the government, and the emergence of ideas through which to substantively address the concerns that have been raised by the Court and activists regarding the status of some of Lahore’s most iconic historical sites. Independent experts and organisations like UNESCO have consistently argued that the government should reconsider its approach to the Orange Line given that existing plans for its routing and construction are likely to cause irreparable harm to sites like Chauburji and the General Post Office and a raft of alternatives, including new routes or the inclusion of more underground tunnels, have repeatedly been offered as a means through which to reconcile concerns for Lahore’s heritage with the city’s undeniable need for mass transit systems.

Throughout this entire saga, the government has, predictably enough, dug in its heels and used any and all means at is disposal to bulldoze its plans through any opposition while simultaneously pillorying its critics as rich, out-of-touch elitists with little sympathy for the masses who would benefit from the Orange Line. It is easy to view the government as simply reverting to loutish form when it does so, but this obscures the very real electoral logic behind the PML-N’s dogged insistence on seeing this project through. Like the metro bus lines the party has built in Lahore and Islamabad, the Orange Line is an extremely visible, indeed unavoidable, symbol of the PML-N’s emphasis on ‘development’. Through the use of these massive infrastructure projects, the party hopes to sell the idea that, in addition to actually being able to get things done, it is interested in providing the masses with services that other parties have been unable to provide in power. These notions complement the specific narrative that has accompanied the Orange Line which portrays its as being a gleaming symbol of modernity and ‘development’, representing Pakistan’s inexorable advancement towards prosperity of the sort enjoyed by richer countries around the world. Consequently, those who oppose such plans are caricatured as being anti-development and anti-poor, content to deny everyone else services that they themselves would never use or need by virtue of their privileged position in society.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the popular appeal of these ideas, and the PML-N’s ability to successfully use its ‘development’ credentials to mobilize support for itself. Indeed, what has often been missed by coverage of the opposition to the Orange Line is the existence of support for it by groups of traders and local level politicians. This is not difficult to explain; the government has made extensive use of the tremendous resources at its disposal to sell the idea of the Orange Line and, in the absence of credible opposition parties with alternative models or plans for development, the PML-N’s successful completion of infrastructural projects, flawed as they may be, brings them victory by default.

The problem here, of course, is that the PML-N’s approach and its flagship projects are indeed deeply flawed. The issues that can be raised here are numerous. The cost of the Orange Line (not including the inevitable cost of corruption and rent-seeking), for example, has long been cited as an extremely inefficient and wasteful way to spend money that could be better utilized on urgent needs like health and education. Investment in the latter is also ‘development’, and is of arguably greater importance than a mass transit system that will benefit a small percentage of commuters in a single city. Similarly, even if the need for mass transit in Lahore were to be seen as an overwhelming developmental priority, it is not self-evident that the Orange Line is the only way to achieve this objective; it has been suggested, for example, that the people of Lahore would be better served by the creation and implementation of a bus network that would be cheaper, and would serve more people, than Orange Line trains. Another point that is often made pertains to the aesthetics of the project; in addition to the damage that will potentially be caused to the city’s heritage, the PML-N’s penchant for erecting massive concrete structures around Lahore (take, for example, the elevated roundabout near Minar-i-Pakistan) belies an insensitivity to concerns about the current and future identity and character of the city.

There is one additional dimension that merits consideration here that was unfortunately overlooked by the Lahore High Court. From its inception, the Orange Line Project has been used as justification for the forcible eviction of thousands of people in low-income neighbourhoods. Many of these people had been living in their homes for generations, and were unceremoniously moved aside to make way for the bulldozers laying the foundations for the Orange Line. The plight of the people rendered homeless and adrift by the government remains largely ignored, and is symptomatic again of the way in which the PML-N remains fundamentally unsympathetic to many of the same people it ostensibly claims to serve. Halting the construction of the Orange Line is laudable, but it must be remembered that any comprehensive attempt to challenge that autocratic and insensitive model of ‘development’ championed by the PML-N is one that, in addition to raising concerns about heritage and aesthetics, highlights how it is nowhere near as pro-poor as the government claims it to be.