Lahore, Pakistan — Ever since Muhammad Saddiq’s two-story house in Northeast Lahore was demolished on New Year’s Day to make room for the Orange Line metro train project, he has been living with his wife and four grown-up children in a single-room apartment allocated by the government. Saddiq was finally able to apply for relocation compensation three weeks ago, but remains unconfident of the prospects.
“I’m worried about how much I could get back without proper documents,” said Saddiq, 60, who provides for his family with a low-level job at Pakistan Railways. “The authorities are saying Rs150,000 per marla ($5.3 per square foot), but it should be double that amount.”
Funded by a state-owned Chinese bank, the metro train project is expected to boost the city’s economy and reduce air pollution. Yet homeowners and business owners with properties on the train route complained of inadequate compensation for relocation, and historians and architects worried about the protection of historical sites. The power struggle between the ruling party of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, which has a supermajority in the provincial Punjab Assembly, and opposition parties further complicated those issues.
Following up on last year’s signing of the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, China is pouring money into the country to upgrade infrastructure and the energy sector while linking western China with the Middle East via highways, railways, and oil and gas pipelines in Pakistan.
State-owned China Railway and China North Industries Group Corp. are working with local constructors to construct the 16.8-mile mass transportation route, which was expected to complete by the end of 2017 to serve 300,000 passengers daily at a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour between the city’s southwest and northeast.
The Export-Import Bank of China would make a $1.62 billion loan at an interest rate of 2.4 percent to the Punjab government, which would pay back the amount due within 20 years after a seven-year grace period following the completion of construction, according to Khawaja Ahmad Hassan, a senior leader of the ruling party with a strong candidacy for Lahore’s next mayor.
The successful completion of Orange Line will “improve local infrastructural conditions and contribute to Lahore’s economic development,” Shen Danyang, Spokesman for China’s Ministry of Commerce, said in a January press conference. Proponents of the project hoped for breathable air in the often smog-plagued city crowed with roaring motorcycles and rickshaws.
Residents and business owners requested to move out of the train route are struggling with lack of housing documents, potential inadequate compensation due to under-declared property for tax evasion, and the headache to find a new home or build up goodwill from scratch.
The provincial government is expected to pay Rs20 billion ($191 million) in compensation for land acquisition to approximately 2,300 households and businesses.
The compensation package based on the so-called surveyor’s price backed by State Bank of Pakistan includes a 15 percent compulsory acquisition premium, 10 to 12 percent displacement allowance, and other compensation for business loss and structure material, according to Hassan.
“I’ve heard no complaint about land acquisition,” said Mohammad Pervaiz Malik, PML-N’s Lahore President, who recently visited a temporary camp set up to process compensation near University of Engineering and Technology in northern Lahore. “Nobody’s property was acquired before compensation, and no one was denied compensation.”
Protection of historical sites
Architects and historians voiced their opposition to the Orange Line construction, fearing inevitable and irreversible damage to historical sites. They have called on the government to stop and review the project, and put the Orange Line under public scrutiny.
“By the time the construction is finished, the city of Lahore will be gone,” lamented Kamil Khan Mumtaz, an architect and founding member of Lahore Conservation Society. “The significance of a historical site or building is not just its physical structure but also the context. The construction is now destroying the view and ambiance.”
Mumtaz added the construction had already destroyed or affected 16 historical sites or buildings, including a McLeod Road milestone marking the distance between Lahore and Delhi.
Hassan of the ruling party, on the other hand, maintained nothing is threatening historical sites along the Orange Line corridor.
“We’ve gone through tests and utilized special techniques for construction and civil works, which made the construction almost vibration proof,” he said. “A German expert said, ‘It’s even below the minimum level of vibration.’”
Mumtaz questioned the methods of the authorities’ tests.
“You should take into consideration the rolling stock, the weight, the acceleration, etc,” he said. “We need public transportation, but we should not destroy our city.”
The Orange Line controversy had been further complicated by opposition parties’ dissatisfaction with PML-N-controlled Punjab government’s handling of the project.
In an opposition alliance protest on The Mall in front of the provincial Punjab Assembly earlier this month, protesters voiced their demands including constructing the project underground instead of using elevated tracks, relocation compensation at market value plus a 25 percent premium, and no diversion of funds for social services and education to the Orange Line construction.
A major challenge for the ruling party of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz is to not let these local protests escalate into strategic and nationwide unrest, according to Andrew Small, a policy researcher at the independent public policy research group German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
“It’s much more difficult and challenging than managing street-level protests to deal with Punjab-related issues on the national stage concerning political and economic topics,” said Small, whose book, The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, delves into the relationship between the two countries.
Drawn in the Orange Line whirlpool, Saddiq’s wife Shamshad Akhtar, a 50-year-old housewife, was worried about the future of her three unmarried daughters. With their house demolished and no new nest for the family within a short time, it’s difficult for the girls to find good matches without a “real estate leverage” on their side.
“I don’t want money but a new house for our family,” Akhtar said as they were waiting to apply for compensation with her husband and son. “I’m really disappointed, and I don’t know what to say or what we’re going to do next.”
Imran Adnan in The Express Tribune’s Lahore bureau contributed to this report.
A version of this story was originally published in The Express Tribune in Pakistan on Feb. 17, 2016, as part of a joint reporting project with Medill and the Center for Excellence in Journalism in Karachi.