The tragedy of Lahore’s Orange Line

The Orange Line Metro Train is slated to launch by June 2019. This correspondent visited the affected sites in January 2018 to assess the heritage and property damage caused by its construction.


For once, the bulldozers are silent. Their operators have gone home for the night, leaving behind the bulky metal beasts at the site of the demolition, their silhouettes an intimidating reminder of their capabilities. The silence accentuates the crackle of rubble under the feet of Ali Rashid, a former resident of the area. As he steps gingerly around the ruins of what used to be his home, now a site for the shiny new Orange Line, he pauses for a moment to reflect.

“My entire life, all 31 years of it, has been wiped off the map — my neighbourhood, my home, my friends’ homes, my relatives’ homes, where we used to play cricket. Everything has been wiped off the map.”

Shabaz Sharif once described the Orange Line as a “gift” from China to Punjab. Indeed, out of a total initial cost of Rs165 billion, China was providing Rs150 billion. That money however was in the form of a loan — not quite a gift — and eventually further financing was required as the cost of the project reportedly escalated to a whopping Rs271 billion. For context, the combined total healthcare budget of the federal government and provinces for the year 2015–16 was Rs225 billion.

Yet the need for a mass transit project in a city like Lahore was undeniable. As senior researcher at the Urban Institute Dr Ammar Malik explains:

“The difference between a chaotic city, which is congested all the time, and a well-functioning metropolitan area is often times the mobility of its people. So it is really important, for economic and social reasons, to have urban transport investments as cities develop.”

For a city like Lahore, with an estimated 10 million inhabitants and 8 million daily motorized rides, a comprehensive solution was necessary. The Orange Line, a 27 km track running from Ali Town on Raiwind Road till Dera Gujran, was expected to be a part of that solution, carrying 245,000 passengers every day. The project ran into trouble, however, when it placed itself in a densely populated city centre which also happened to be home to several World Heritage sites.

It is Saturday and the Urs at Baba Mauj Darya’s shrine is in full flow. A kaleidoscope of colours, sounds and smells fill the courtyard as devotees pay their respects to a man revered throughout history; the land for this very shrine was awarded by the Emperor Akbar in 1591. The celebrations, usually ecstatic, have a ring of melancholy about them — for today is no ordinary day, it is the last ever Urs at the shrine of Baba Mauj Darya. A shrine that for centuries managed to withstand everything from countless foreign armies to the floods of the River Ravi was now finally succumbing — to the Orange Line.

Devotees offer supplications at the shrine of Mauj Darya.

Maryam Hussain, activist and former professor at the National College of Arts, stands on the street outside lined with samosay and jalebi-walas. Amid the reverberations of dhols in the background, she describes the tragedy unfolding at Mauj Darya.

“The tunnel for the train is going to go right through the courtyard of this Mauj Darya shrine. It is a “cut and cover” tunnel, similar to an underpass. The excavation will be only 1.5 ft away from the shrine itself. When this is done, the shrine will be open from two sides, because nothing can be made over the tunnel. So a process that began in 1604 (when the shrine first opened) will now come to an end.”

A long with Mauj Darya, there are a total of 11 World Heritage Sites that lie within 200 ft of the Orange Line. The laws under which these monuments are protected and preserved are the Antiquity Act, 1975 and the Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance, 1985. Section 22 of the Act of 1975 and Section 11 of the Ordinance of 1985 specifically prohibit any construction within 200 feet of these properties without the prior approval of the Director General of Archaeology, due to the risk of heritage damage. Leaving the decision in the hands of an official appointed by the government itself however, left the potential open for political interference.

Unsurprisingly, the DG Archaeology approved the construction plans for the Orange Line despite government building plans themselves showing how perilously close the tracks of the train are to these fragile historical monuments. The Mauj Darya Shrine and St. Andrews Church in particular, buildings which embody centuries of history and hold tremendous religious significance, will be nearly obliterated.

p.82 Nespak Presentation, Lahore Development Authority
p.79 Nespak Presentation, Lahore Development Authority

The government’s own Heritage Impact Assessment report detailed the significant damage that would be incurred by these structures during the construction and the operation phase of the Orange Line — although it claimed all these problems could be mitigated.

p .45–46 Heritage Impact Assessment Report, Lahore Development Authority

Look a little closer and the government’s own report unwittingly provides evidence of the illegality of its actions. Its Construction Phase Vibration Report found that during operations, peak acceleration at the Mauj Darya shrine will exceed the maximum permissible limit.

Even more significantly, the Supreme Court building, St. Andrews Church and the Mauj Darya shrine will likely suffer from peak velocities far higher than safe limits during the construction phase. The maximum velocity permissible is under 3 mm/sec and at first glance, Figure 3 from the report below seems to show that the tools used for construction will stay under that velocity.

p.26 Construction Phase Vibration Report, Nespak

But the graph readings used start from a distance of 10 metres, while their own measurements show that these three sites fall well within 10 metres of the construction sites. Thus the velocities they will suffer have no upper limit. They will likely be far higher than the safe limit for velocity that the Government of Punjab claims it is following, and the damage caused by these vibrations will be substantial and permanent.

p.30 Construction Phase Vibration Report, Nespak

The destruction of World Heritage sites is one of the arguments against the Orange Line. Then there is also the issue of the displacement of tens of thousands of people.

Displacement is not a problem per se.

“For developing countries like Pakistan, it is much more economically efficient to build mass transit lines, overground, elevated, rather than underground…there is absolutely no other way of building overground in really crowded neighbourhoods and not have people be displaced.”

The problem lies in the manner in which people were displaced.

The government took over the land for the Orange Line through the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, a colonial-era law that allows the government to acquire private property in exchange for compensation. Article 6 of the Act states that notice should be given to residents that the government intends to take possession of the land, while Article 23(2) requires that residents be paid 15–25% above a court-determined market rate. Similarly, Article 6 of the National Resettlement Policy which was drafted in 2002 (but is yet to be approved) unequivocally spells out that people affected must be fully informed and consulted on compensation, that the compensation amount be negotiated with those living there, and that compensation will be for all affected persons, including those without title deeds. But the Government of Punjab failed to even meet the standards of the British colonisers.

“(The Government of Punjab) started the demolition of homes in October 2015. At that time not a single person was awarded compensation. Even after the passage of six to eight months, not a single resident had received any money. Their feasibility study itself said that, on the orders of the government, we have not included land acquisition costs. (Paying the residents) was never their intention.”

Maryam Hussain was present on the day of the demolitions, as was another resident, Shabana Ali, who was evicted from her home that day.

“They forced me out. I was with my little girl inside our home when they started demolishing the building from above. I had no choice at that point, we had to leave. Till today, I am sitting here in the rubble with my daughter. Right over there, in the street, are all of my possessions.”

Eventually after considerable public pressure, the government agreed to give a million rupees per house as compensation, a pitiful amount that cannot buy a home in any part of the city. Even then, not everyone received the money, while some allegedly had 15–20% of their awards deducted in bribes. The demolitions however continued.

Exasperated by the government’s attitude towards their complaints, in 2015 a group of citizens took the Government of Punjab to court over heritage law violations. The Lahore High Court found that the Government of Punjab had not used independent experts for its evaluation.

“In the given circumstances, there is no manner of doubt that the Director General Archaeology and Committee while granting original NOCs dated 16.11.2015 and 30.11.2015 have not applied their mind independently and acted illegally, unreasonably, irrationally and beyond their jurisdiction in giving permission to development plan, scheme and construction of project within 200 feet of protected antiquity and special premises (p.51).”

However, rather than allay the concerns of the court by hiring independent experts, the government appealed in the Supreme Court.

On 8th December 2017, the Supreme Court issued its judgement. Despite a scathing dissent by Justice Maqbool Baqar on how the Orange Line violated various laws and heritage principles, the Court ruled in favour of the government in a split majority. Justice Ijazul Ahsan, delivering the majority verdict, came to a vastly different conclusion that the government had met all the heritage protection requirements and the opposition had no credible case whatsoever.

The judgement, while siding with the government, did lay out certain conditions that the government would have to abide by in its construction. Fittingly, the government showed its scant regards for the conditions by starting construction the very next day. A visit to various Orange Line sites several weeks later found that most of the safeguards had still to be implemented.

Nearly two years after the demolition of their home, Ali and his family have yet to receive their promised compensation amount. Although Ali had obtained a stay order for the demolition of their home, they were eventually forced to leave when the government cut off their essential utilities. Their fate is the same as that of many other residents evicted; they live in another part of the city in a rental apartment, with Ali’s wages divided between feeding his family and trying to keep a roof over their heads. Still, a better fate than the thousands evicted that became, and remain, homeless.

As he stands surveying the mounds of rubble that lie in front of him, Ali’s voice cracks with emotion as he reflects on his family’s journey.

“Our family had migrated over from the state of Kapurthala in India (during Partition). They were allotted homes in Kapurthala House here. Today, 70 years later, we have again become refugees in our own land. Every person here has a unique story. They did not just break people’s houses or estates, they broke families.”

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