Harking Back: Best change in Lahore will come from within

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Nov 9 , 2014


Writing about the people, places, things and faces of Lahore and its environs is fine in that it brings forth aspects of our heritage that are fading fast from our collective memory. Sadly, very sadly, we never move on to remedial action to correct, and in the process improve, what has gone wrong.

For one I refuse to accept that this is deliberate inaction. Some cynics even believe this is a genetic fault, which merely is an excuse for inaction. What has gone wrong with us? Why do we not graduate onto action, and by action I mean well-considered planned action of the highest quality?

While decisions and actions for grand projects like motorways, shipping docks and new airports are initiated from the top, and greasy Islamabad is enough proof of that shady process, we see that there is just no mechanism to initiate equally important projects to rejuvenate the very ‘mohallahs’ in which we live.

These are small projects that do not cost a lot of money, but just do not exist because local ‘mohallah’ leadership is sadly absent. Now nothing could be more manageable than organising a ‘mohallah committee’ by making sure every household is a member.

Encouraging them to assist in carrying out planned action is a task that certainly needs initial assistance. Beyond that quality monitoring and constancy is what can convert a decaying ‘mohallah’ into a virtual heaven, one which is not only livable, but also an enjoyable experience.

One such undertaking is the now completed Gali Surjan Singh inside Delhi Gate. What can we learn from this amazing experience?

The first lesson of Gali Surjan Singh is that every member has a traditional small ‘haveli’ with modern bathrooms and kitchen, where the woodwork has been upgraded to a very high standard, where the brickwork has been conserved and made good enough for the next 100 years. Unlike cement which decays with age, the use of lime plaster improves with age. The walls present a crisp classic look.

With all the ‘havelis’ secure and in prime condition, the outside is where the most work was done by the Paris-based Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which was assisting the then Lahore Walled City Project.

All facilities like water, electricity and gas went underground, the waste water system radically improved and the streets repaved in a beveled manner. The result is really impressive, a clean open space that adds so much to the environment.

With a very friendly people and the charm of ‘old world mohallah’ friendliness, it definitely is a place to live in. This is what can be replicated with ease now that we have learnt a few lessons in human behaviour. Small successes are what make the biggest difference to our collective life. This is what we should all be supporting in every possible way.

Many years ago a World Bank director by the name of John Wall visited the old walled city and even went to the extent of buying a small house. He set in motion a project to conserve and improve one portion of the old city, a project that eventually came to be called the ‘Shahi Guzargah Project’. Today that very project, thanks again to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, is fast improving into a very livable place.

The only black mark of this project was when the Aga Khan visited Pakistan in the PPP days and our then slick president sent him a bill for expenses made during his visit. What greater insult could Pakistan heap on a man with ‘Head of State’ status who has always assisted Pakistan?

His grandfather was the first president of the Muslim League and had a big hand in the creation of Pakistan. He since has not visited Pakistan and was last month in Afghanistan and other central Asian countries encouraging the conservation of Islamic culture. We love to shoot ourselves in the feet.

But the experience of starting small and improving the lot and life of the poor, so experience tells us, is a guarantee that the larger picture will pick itself up better. Big projects like conserving the beautiful mosque of Wazir Khan, or trying to save the Lahore Fort, or even the excellent work currently underway in the Shahi Hammam inside Delhi Gate, are very important.

But then all of this will make much more sense if the surrounding ‘mohallahs’ pick themselves up too and look and feel better than these prestigious monuments.

I write all this because today is the launch of the ‘mohallahjat’ project by a group of well-meaning people belonging to the old walled city, or having their origins there.

Though all assistance is welcome, but the thrust is on the people of the ‘mohallah’ contributing and being assisted in planning and execution by a quality group of people. They seek no publicity, which is a guarantee of their success. What is good is that the change is coming from within.

There is always hope for the good things in the life of Lahore coming good. Yes, I am an unashamed optimist.

Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2014




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