Urban Development and Dislocation in Lahore

Caroline Knowles
Mar 5, 2019 · 4 min read

Public transport forms the vital arteries of city life. Without it everyday life is difficult and slow as people navigate gridlocked traffic in cities like Nairobi where movement is measured in inches and faster on foot. Public transport infrastructure makes a city run: it is a crucial part of city life and vitality. With only a fledgling public transport system, Lahore — already a megacity of over 11 million and rising — badly needs a mass transit system.

The Orange Line

The orange line is a 26.2 km train line and part of a larger system that will provide mass transit in Lahore. It transects the city from All Town in the south-west to Dera Gygran in the north-east and is due to be completed in June 2019. Like many major infrastructure projects, its costs have risen alarmingly, and it is funded in part through soft loans, engineering expertise and skilled labour from China. Visiting the Anarkali/Mauj Darya neighbourhood in central Lahore with a team of British Academy-funded researchers, we were allowed to take a look at an underground section of the line in construction. Above ground the station building displays tasteful contemporary mosque-like tones with marble floors and beautiful mosaic wall tiles. Descending below ground on a rubble-strewn stairway into the eerie orange light illuminating the construction, it is difficult not to be impressed by this state of the art metro system in the making.


But the line comes with hidden costs in disruption to the lives and livelihoods of this vibrant popular neighbourhood, from which thousands of families settled since partition (in 1947) were displaced, scattered throughout the city. The first the people of Anarkali heard about their impending eviction was when someone from the city government — legally supported by the Land Acquisition Act (1894) — arrived to mark the outside of their homes for demolition. This was soon followed by what local activists describe as a military operation led by armed police and bulldozers in which people who resisted were forcibly dragged from their homes and businesses. Many homes were simply cut in half and families left to live in the part of their house left standing. This neighbourhood sits on valuable land and the area cleared in front of the station will become a parking lot or a shopping mall — no one in the community is certain.

Building an Archive of Dispossession

No one knows where the dislocated ended up in the city or how they managed to rebuild their lives. A team of researchers — Ammara Maqsood, Fizzah Sajjad and Jonathan Spencer — funded by the British Academy Cities and Infrastructure Programme — searched for them and collected their stories. Piecing together the experiences and cartographies of the displaced, the team has assembled a valuable archive of personal maps and interview material from those who are otherwise silenced and dispersed throughout this rapidly emerging megacity.

The team discovered that people wanted a modern public transit system: that they accepted the logics of urban development. But they also wanted to be included in the decision-making and not to be on the wrong end of a government directed bulldozer. They wanted construction to be minimised in densely populated areas. And they wanted alternative housing to be provided for them collectively, rather than to be offered widely varying amounts of compensation and sent off individually to find a new place in the city. In expressing their sense of dislocation, one of them said: ‘If we die in this neighbourhood, no one will know’.

Infrastructure is Politics

Jonathan Spencer suggests that the state may have facilitated the dispossession of the poor on terms that are favourable to property markets and to the benefit of its own and its supporters’ real estate interests. The Pakistan army is highly invested in large-scale property ownership and development. Infrastructure developments are politics in track and cement.

The benefits of this research lie in the lessons the dispossessed offer to ongoing and future urban developments. A public transport system that everyone can use is an important asset. But people want to see themselves in the plans. They want to be included in a bottom up rather than top down planning processes. People want to see themselves in the newly emerging city.

The local activists who played an important part in orchestrating resistance to the evictions say that the team’s archive is vital to their future dealings with planning and development authorities. Technocrats like data. Collected tales of individual dislocation will eventually find a use in building an argument for more open and democratic ways of developing cities. The beneficiaries of this research are as yet unknown. The research archive is, however, a valuable resource articulating the voices of the silenced and dispersed and can be deployed as circumstances unfold in thousands of similar developments across Lahore and, perhaps, in other cities too.

Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the British Academy’s Cities & Infrastructure Programme. Caroline writes about migration and circulation of material objects — some of the social forces constituting globalisation. She is particularly interested in cities, having done research in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Fuzhou, Addis Ababa, Kuwait City and Seoul.

Caroline Knowles

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