LAHORE: A press conference on the Supreme Court's (SC) proceedings of the Orange Metro Heritage Case, April 2017 is being held at the request of all those citizens of Lahore, who love their city and have been struggling to protect its heritage and cultural identity as well as their homes from certain destruction by the Punjab government’s badly designed Orange Line Metro (OMT) Train Project, which violates Pakistan’s constitution, national heritage and environmental laws as well as legal obligations under UN international instruments Pakistan has ratified.

The government’s lawyers have forwarded no substantial arguments to justify the completion of the OMT under its present design and technology other than pushing the fait accompli argument and questioning UNESCO credentials. The argument is that ‘because so much work has already been done, let us go ahead and complete it, regardless of violation of law or damage to heritage’ – this was done deliberately.

Of concern is that construction towards heritage sites has continued at a fast pace despite the Lahore High Court (LHC) judgement requiring a review of the project before proceeding. Instead of complying, the government has spent 9 months trying to overturn the judgement in the SC while continuing construction. This strategy of break the law, build fast and then say it is already done, was used for the signal free corridor on Jail Road. Should the SC rule in the government’s favour, this strategy could be used across Punjab and Pakistan. No heritage or person will be safe or protected by law.

Civil society lawyers, Asma Jahangir, Azhar Siddique and Khawaja Ahmad Hosain, rejected the government’s ‘fait accompli’ argument as a dangerous precedent that justified the violation not only of established rules and procedures but also enables the subversion of the country’s laws on the grounds that ‘now that the deed is partially done let’s complete it regardless of its legality’. Pointing out the deliberate inaccuracies in terms of distances and vibration levels in the NESPAK report, design maps etc, they showed how the OMT project – if allowed to proceed with its present design and technology, would result in certain damage and in some cases, the destruction of monuments and buildings that make Lahore ‘Lahore’ and are an integral part of the city’s identity and soul.

11 key sites along the heritage ‘corridor’ are as follows, Shalamar Gardens (1642 World Heritage Site, Budhu da Awa (approx. 1628), Gulabi Bagh (1655), Lakshmi Mansion (1935), General Post Office (1887), Supreme Court Registry Building (1880), Aiwan e Auqaf (1880), Shah Chiragh Shrine (1657. Built by Aurangzeb) St. Andrews Church (1860), Mauj Darya Mazar (1591 built by Akbar), Chauburji (1646 built by Zeb un Nisa) and Princess Zebunnissa’s Tomb (1649).

Four that face certain destruction are more the than hundred year old St. Andrews Church – where the cut and cover construction entails the partial demolition of the building and the 16th Century Mauj Darya Mazar whose foundations lie less than 2 feet away from the proposed OMT construction. The already-fragile Chauburji, where the soil is showing signs of subsidence due to digging within the 200’ perimeter, the GPO building, and the façade of Lakshmi Mansion seem to be the next in line to go – if not immediately, in the near future as none of these buildings will withstand the high vibration impact of the construction phase. Assurances by the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) that ‘damaged’ buildings will be ‘rebuilt’ or ‘repaired’ are farcical as they underscore the government’s inability to distinguish between heritage sites and modern buildings. Chauburji, Lakshmi Mansion, Gulabi Bagh, Buddu da Awa and Shalamar will suffer high visual impact as the viaduct pylons will block their view and diminish their value.

Shalamar Gardens has 'Outstanding Universal Value' as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The certain damage to the Mughal Water Works and Hydraulic Tank entails the very real risk of the Shalamar and Lahore Fort being de-listed as World Heritage Sites. This would impact negatively the sites’ potential to earn revenue through tourism. The government’s failure to issue visas for UNESCO’s Reactive Mission to Pakistan to assess the safety of the Shalamar World Heritage Site is of concern and a tacit admission that the OMT design fails to protect the visual and structural integrity of the site.

The lawyers also pointed out evidence of flawed planning and design with regard to the NESPAK Vibration Analysis which was evaluated by heritage and structural engineering experts. This nullifies the government's assurances of due process undertaken to ensure the safety of the monuments.

Incorrect and misleading calculations are being used to cover up the high vibration impact on monuments especially during the construction phase and the soil between the vibration source and monument has not been tested for vibration impact, besides the condition of the concerned monuments has not been assessed as per standard requirements for ancient monuments.

A realistic solution in this case is for the project to be in the form of a bored tunnel from Zeb-un-Nisa to Shalamar Gardens. This will preserve the entire valuable heritage and the character of the city. Cities all over the world with heritage use a bored tunnel. The remainder of the project can be as is, in the form of elevated viaduct till before Zeb-un-Nisa and Shalamar. The Punjab government can thus complete this section of mass transit from the outer areas into the heart of Lahore.

While in the heart of Lahore with heritage sites, either a bus transit system or underground bored tunnel option can be adopted. This would be practical and give modern transportation to citizens and preserve heritage. It would be sustainable development consistent with heritage preservation.

Taking note of the assurance by the SC's bench that its members place a high value on Lahore’s heritage, our reliance is on them that as custodians of our national heritage, their decision ensures its preservation and protection.

Artist Aijaz Anwar, NCA Associate Professor Maryam Hussain, FC College Research Fellow Raheem ul Haque, and an affectee, Shabana, took part in the press conference. SAP-PK Executive Director Mohammad Tehseen said that the Project Feasibility, Environment Impact Assessment report and Vibration Analysis done by NESPAK were doctored, amounting to criminal neglect.

"We should file criminal cases against NESPAK, LDA and Lahore Mass Transit Authority to ensure that our heritage is not treated the same way in the future," said Tehseen.