LAHORE: When bulldozers started crashing in front of the home of Shakeel Ahmed in the historic Anarkali district of Lahore, he and his neighbours huddled at a nearby temple, desperate for the loss of their property and land.
Ahmed, 40, like other families in the region, said he was forced to sell his home to the provincial government of Punjab for much less than the market value to make way for a new Chinese-funded subway in the second largest city in the world.
In one of South Asia’s most crowded metropolitan centres, the $1.8 billion Orange Line, which began running in October, hopes to cut traffic and air pollution, but it has left hundreds of residents facing an unpredictable future.
“I didn’t want somewhere but to go. This is the only spot in my life I have ever known,” Ahmed told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.”
Affected people accuse Punjab government of forcing them to sell their property at far less than market price
He rents a room behind the revered Mauj Darya shrine today, but in the years to come he fears being priced out of the increasingly gentrifying city, which now has its own metro station.
As part of its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Program, The Orange Line, run by China Railway, NORINCO International and Pakistani partners, is one of around two dozen new rapid transit initiatives Beijing is launching globally.
It transports up to 250,000 passengers a day, and its low cost of 40 rupees (about $ 0.20) a trip and the dawn of a sleek, hi-tech form of transportation for supporters of the metro trumpet.
Standing in front of the gleaming Anarkali metro station, Kafeel Chaudhary, 54, a resident of the district, said the train will help the economy of the country, which, like its regional neighbours, has reeled under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Pakistan, we have very few examples of this form of modern infrastructure. Typically, these trains are only seen in Europe. But now Pakistan, thanks to China, has one too,’ Chaudhary said.
However, residents displaced by the Orange Line fear that the rapid growth of the city’s infrastructure may leave them on the economic margins, especially in historical areas along the metro’s path.
“Ahmed said, standing outside the government-owned Maharaja Building, a crumbling housing block of one-bedroom apartments occupied by entire families, “For one million rupees ($6,291), we will never find a spot in this city again.
For the metro scheme, part of the building was demolished, impacting some 200 people, including Ahmed, who is now renting a room in the portion of the block which is still standing.
Today, most of the former tenants of the building fear they have lost land in one of the most iconic and valuable commercial areas of Lahore. They expect home values to increase in the coming years — but know they will not reap the rewards.
According to the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), more than 50 households in the building have been rewarded with a lump sum of one million rupees per room since being displaced by the Orange Line, but many residents are disappointed.
“We didn’t get enough money,” Ahmed said, accusing local authorities of heavy-handedness during the development process as they vacated land.
“When they came to force us to leave our homes, the police came with them… How were people willing to fight for them? Zargham Lukhesar, a local barrister who collaborated with activists to challenge the city’s train route, said residents were frequently forced to sell their homes, especially those from low-income communities.
The official will have to sign a paper, say, take it or leave it,’ he said. “It was easy for the state to harass residents and push them out and give them peanuts.”
Under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, a colonial-era statute giving the government the right to appropriate land if residents obtain compensation and advance notice, the LDA said the Punjab government was allowed to take land.
It allotted Rs1.6 billion to people residing in government-owned properties for compensation payments and Rs20 billion to private property owners, the LDA said.
A LDA spokesman said that people were not under pressure to sell land and denied seeking below-market-value payments. He added that residents who may not have had documentation of possession have now been paid by the government.
Residents (have) been paying compensation by the government on humanitarian grounds for… (resettlement) as though they had no rights to possession,’ said the spokesperson.
Residents wanted their construction nightmare to end when a part of the Maharaja Building was torn down.
Today, however, construction work remains incomplete. A walkway outside the building is lined with sheets of corrugated metal, and after the main mosque of the Mauj Darya shrine was erected for the Orange Line, a temporary mosque sits on the perimeter.
The building is not secure, and there is no longer intact structural integrity. Since we don’t have the money, the government should fix it,’ said Samina Naeem, 40, a mother who still lives in the Maharaja House.
A new mosque is currently being constructed by the government to supplant the destroyed one.
It is not just people who have had their lives turned upside down by the Orange Line, said Lukhesar, the barrister.
“He said, “The entire economy of the city was disrupted. “A tiny vendor sitting on the street would have to move, the tree would have to move, it would have had a terrific impact.”
Six hundred trees were cut down along the metro line, which also passes through some of the most respected heritage sites in Lahore, including the shrine of Mauj Darya, which also lost part of its courtyard to bulldozers.
Heritage sites have been lost permanently,” said the president of the Lahore Conservation Society, Kamil Khan Mumtaz.”
Detractors contend that China’s investments threaten swelling Pakistan’s hefty public debt, in addition to heritage and economic livelihood issues. Debt servicing accounts for about 40 per cent of Pakistan’s national budget for 2020-21.
“Mumtaz said, “The majority of the people will pay for the low cost of these fares.
“I’m looking at what’s going on in my town, my pocket, my health, my environment, which is going to make us all much poorer.”