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Collision course

ASHA’AR REHMAN - The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

ASHA’AR REHMAN – The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

IN an apparent moment of reckoning, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif recently wondered out loud about how he was being exploited by the system. He asked that if it was he who was required to do everything, what were the others there for.

The statement may not necessarily reflect a shift on the chief minister’s part from the arbitrary to the consultative and inclusive. The rulers in Lahore are hurt and angry that one of their much-loved schemes has run into legal hitches, and they are prepared to launch an attempt to rescue the Orange train, in the manner they best trust.

The hopes that the moment of reflection provided by the Lahore High Court (LHC) will have a sobering impact on the powerful, who must use their authority to conduct the argument in a cordial atmosphere marked by mutual respect, have been dashed. Those who can set the tone and convince the objection-makers that they were ready to listen and accommodate all points of views continue in the adversarial mode — a little more forcefully than before.

The LHC has called a halt to construction on 11 heritage sites and, as expected, the Punjab government has announced that it will be challenging the decision in the Supreme Court. The battle that a ‘handful’ of Lahoris have been fighting is far from over, but the LHC verdict has to be one of the most memorable moments in the lives of activists fighting for restraint in carrying out development projects. Also, there are vocal and silent supporters.

The LHC verdict has to be one of the most memorable moments in the lives of activists fighting for restraint in carrying out development projects.

The governments in the country, especially the sterner and determined and more efficient ones like the Shahbaz Sharif administration have seldom been made to heed the dissenting voices from amongst the citizens by legal decree and or public outcry.

This, to minds used to the smooth execution of grand plans built on a singular model of prosperity, must represent a dangerous trend. A government not known for spending too much time on the formalities of interacting with various stakeholders before the execution of a scheme would not only be shocked by the decision, it would be expected to be fearful of repeats in the future.

The tough truth, however, is that the court battles with dissenters can only be avoided by engaging the latter at other forums. If there has to be an exchange of argument — which so many of us believe is central to democracy and all manner of evolution — it is better that this exchange takes place at the start of a project ie right at the inception, instead of at a later stage when the court has to adjudicate on the issue.

It is not that the Punjab government is totally unaware of the need to engage the dissenters outside the court. During the period when this civil society case about the Orange train was being taken up, there were overtures suggesting that the government was ready to have some kind of an out-of-court dialogue with those who had some objections or who proposed some changes to the train scheme.

But the impression was dispelled the moment an official started explaining in grandiose terms the great dreams that the rulers had for the subjects, and how these dream plans could not be subjected to any modifications. This made the whole exercise in belated consultation and lobbying meaningless, even when it could be said that at least in media discussions of the issue, the staunchest opponents of the train were willing to accord Mr Sharif respect on the basis of some of his work.

A typical complaint about the issues concerning the Orange train — a newspaper article, a letter or a press statement — would first list the chief minister’s contribution before the authors drew his kind attention to what was bothering them. That is a privilege not afforded to too many state functionaries in Pakistan.

The choice was Mr Shahbaz Sharif’s to act big and prove that he was a chief minister of not only those standing in queue to board the fancy train but also of those who were furthering the cause of democratic development and development by democratic means in his jurisdiction. He still has this option to engage all schools of thought.

Back then, the chief minister decided to not take the option, allowing and egging on his camp to pounce on the dissenters with misplaced passion. The official camp was not shy of using old tactics such as the one which had them calling the critics of the train names.

The elite, these civil society members were dubbed, and painted as villains out to block relief for the underprivileged. And even while they might have come up with a variety of reasons why they opposed the Orange train — in its present shape and on its original course — in official accounts they were held guilty of protecting something totally useless. Heritage — such an out-of-vogue word for the times we are living in. Let’s talk about mobility, jobs etc.

The so-called anti-train sections did talk about concerns considered more serious than heritage and culture by minds who proudly flaunt the now famous Punjab speed. To the list were added related issues such as displacement.

Generally, these were ignored by the government. The government treated the complaint against some aspects of the train as not an appeal to the good sense of the powerful rulers and for a more comprehensive look at things by an expert panel but as a challenge to their development design.

It is not going to help if the refrain is not shed by the Shahbaz Sharif set-up. The belittling and snubbing of a group of citizens is not desirable for someone who claims unmatchable popular seal for his works. There are certain traditions must be protected. Only the elite can recreate an exclusive Jati Umra as a tribute to their heritage. The rest of the people have to be content with the open-to-all Shalamar.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.