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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Preserving Ancient Pakistan

Air Date: Week of

A rising population and crushing migration into cities is changing the face of urban Pakistan. Historic structures are being bulldozed to make way for office towers and apartment buildings. BBC Correspondent Richard Galpin reports from a city famous for its ancient architecture, Lahore (la-HORE).


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks to poverty and degradation of the environment that supports rural subsistence, country folk throughout the developing world are on the run. And the place they are headed is town. As massive waves of migrants come in search of livelihoods, the very landscape of urban life is changing. One such place is an ancient city in Pakistan, Lahore. Lahore is one of Asia's most important cultural and historic centers, but much of its heritage is being destroyed by development. Correspondent Richard Galpin brings us this story from Lahore as, ironically, the city prepares for a festival marking its fifteen-hundredth anniversary.

(Sitar music up and under)

GALPIN: It was once the seat of Moghul emperors who conquered much of South Asia in the sixteenth century. It would later become a glittering city of the British Empire.

(Sitar music continues)

GALPIN: Each successive wave of conquerors and empire builders left its mark. Lahore is a city of exquisite architecture, peppered with historic buildings. But now, there is a new and destructive invasion underway.

(Several voices, speaking in Pakistani; sounds of scraping)

GALPIN: This invasion is being led by developers building roads, office buildings, and housing projects. Historic Lahore is disappearing beneath a wave of concrete.

(Motors running)

GALPIN: In part, it's the government which is behind this, as it forges ahead with plans to modernize the country. But modernization comes at a price: the loss of historic buildings, which for centuries have made Lahore a city of such cultural importance to the South Asia region. In one of the most controversial incidents so far, a seventeenth-century waterworks, built by the Moghul emperor Shah Jehan to supply the world-famous Shalimar Gardens, was reduced to a pile of rubble. Bulldozers knocked it down to widen a road. The site's caretaker, Bashir Ahmed, can scarcely believe it.

AHMED: [Speaks in Pakistani] TRANSLATOR: This is an antiquity, and to demolish it is against the Antiquity Act. It is on the World Heritage List, which also makes it illegal to destroy it.


GALPIN: Not far away is another important slice of history, Tollinton Market, built at the height of the British Raj in the 1860s as an exhibition hall. This classic piece of imperial architecture is being allowed to rot and crumble away. Developers know the land it stands on is worth millions of dollars, prime real estate where they plan to build a high-rise office block.

(Motors, background voices)

GALPIN: Most of the shopkeepers have already left the market, but one, Fazal Karim, is determined to stay. For five generations his family has sold fruit and vegetables here.

KARIM: [Speaks in Pakistani] TRANSLATOR: This building should be saved and preserved. This is our heritage, and the facilities that people use to enjoy in this place should be restored. It is not right to destroy our heritage with our own hands.


ANWAR: Older portion of this building was destroyed, and they put up this thing...

GALPIN: For Doctor Ajaz Anwar, a well-known artist and scholar in Lahore, preserving the city's heritage has become a personal crusade. He was the founding member of the Lahore Conservation Society.

ANWAR: ... and this is not in good taste ...

GALPIN: We drove together along Lahore's main street, the Mall. A hundred years ago it was a showcase of British colonial splendor. Today it's a symbol of decay and neglect. Doctor Anwar points out how many of the nineteenth-century imperial buildings have already been knocked down and replaced with shopping and office blocks. To him, the destruction of the cultural heritage is a crime, particularly because he believes many builders obtain contracts through corrupt means, and in violation of local laws.

ANWAR: The threat is immense: every day we see new office blocks are built. They think, by building new buildings, they will be improving the city. But due to their ignorance, they are destroying all the once-beautiful buildings. The whole character of the city is being changed.

GALPIN: But to others, the transformation of Lahore is a necessary change. The city's population is rapidly expanding. Demand for housing and office space is intense. Architects and urban planners, such as Nayeem Pasha, argue that cities like Lahore must modernize if Pakistan is to become a developed nation.

PASHA: I think you have to be selective as to what is heritage, what isn't heritage. And in those cases, the debate can get very lengthy, but I think that for the sake of development, getting into the next millennium, maybe, getting into another development stage, you need to do some of the work that is necessary to widen the roads, and cleaning a lot of encroachments, and all that.

GALPIN: But even Nayeem Pasha concedes that corruption in the building and planning agencies is leading to wanton destruction of important historic landmarks. Doctor Ajaz Anwar of the Lahore Conservation Society says immediate action is essential.


ANWAR: It is really a race against time. I think if things go like that, I don't see much of Lahore ten years from hence. But still, if we try, we can at least slow down this process of destruction.

(Ambient voices, bells ring, music)

GALPIN: At the moment, little is being done to reverse the decline of this beautiful and historic city. And for this, Dr. Ajaz Anwar says the government must, in part, take responsibility.

ANWAR: They don't have a legislation strong enough, and that legislation, too, is not enforced fully. There are just a line of buildings to be pulled down, unchecked. Second is, I must blame this on the ignorance of the people who are just selling these buildings, beautiful ones, and also those ignorant people who are buying these buildings at very high prices and knocking down these buildings.

GALPIN: But the government says both the Ministry of Culture and the local authorities are working hard to preserve Lahore's heritage. And it's certainly true that some old public buildings have been restored to their former glory. But the Culture Minister, Mushahid Hussein, does admit there's still much to be done.

HUSSEIN: It's true, some of the buildings are in disrepair. They are in bad shape. We are seeking to repair them. You can see the example of two major buildings. The Lahore Fort, for example, and also the Batchai [ph] mosque. And these are in better shape, and we are trying to refurbish the Lahore Fort, and restore its old glory, so that it is a monument to our rich heritage and history, and also it is a tourist attraction.

GALPIN: But conservationists say this is nowhere near enough to save the city from ruin. At the moment, they say, it's the building contractors who are winning the battle for the soul of Lahore. And, according to the conservationists, the current festival marking the fifteen-hundredth anniversary of the city's founding may be the last ever held here. They claim that within a few years, there may be nothing of historical importance left to celebrate. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Galpin in Lahore, Pakistan.



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