[Dawn 21 April, 2019]

The romantic image of the old walled city of Lahore takes a massive dent once we stray from the main tourist routes. Surrounded by truck stands, thousands of motorcycles and cars and illegal markets, the reality is slowly killing off the historic portions of our heritage.

The question that now comes to mind is ‘just how long will it take for the traders of the city to completely eliminate all original inhabitants from their old city. The creation of a Walled City of Lahore Authority was meant to halt the heinous commercial tentacles of the trading classes, to allegedly conserve whatever was left of our heritage and to convert what a sage once called “the world’s largest living museum” into a tourist delight. Of the 1,970 recognised buildings of ‘historic interest’ within the last 10 years only 627 are left. The disease continues to spread.

The rot continues because the politically-virile traders with ‘well-lubricated’ bureaucratic connections all know there is a profit to be made in this destruction. Profits matter more than heritage. Money opens every obstacle in the way of their designs. For them the old walled city is one massive opportunity. Initially they just stored goods, then they knocked down the ancient walls to improve mobility of their goods, and then they created three new entrance points which they call gates.

Experts from Unesco advised long ago that the first step should be that the truck stand at Badami Bagh be closed and moved across the river. This would improve traffic flows within the city and also slow down the damage to the walled city. Our bureaucrats laughed off every move to clear scores of illegal markets inside and in the old gardens around the city walls.

That is the situation as it stands today. But a few very dangerous developments are creeping into the nature of the trader-supplier equation. This is the growth of complete factories in the residential areas of the old walled city. Let me explain.

The largest market complex is the Shoe Market. Now a shoe factory needs leather or artificial leather, cutting machines, glue, string, polish, rubber or plastic soles, buckles, and a host of such products as well as packing materials. The nearer these are to the wholesale markets the better for the traders.

Let me narrate one place so as to let the reader relate to what I am talking about. If you have ever gone to the shop of Khalifa the ‘khatai’ shop, just opposite is a huge building of considerable beauty and historic importance. These days it is known as ‘Butt’s Haveli’ though originally it belonged to a Sikh aristocrat. As you walk up the stairs to the huge main courtyard, the pungent smell of glue makes your head spin. In any country the health authorities would arrest the owners and seal the premises. But Pakistan is ‘another country’. When I first mentioned it to the relevant authorities they asked: “Where is that”. Let us examine this place room by room.

The room to the left has chemicals stored away and the mixing is done in the next room. It is a lethal undertaking and the smell spreads far and wide. Just to the front chemically-loaded ‘wet blue’ semi-finished leather is soaked and set on hot metal sheets. The straightened leather is then coated with oils to soften them and then dyes colour them. It is a mini leather tannery of sorts that produces just enough leather for the shoe manufacturing planned. But it also uses lethal chemicals, what to speak of the danger to workers, who operate with bare hands without face masks breathing dangerous fumes.

On the first floor are rows of stitching units each specialising in a function. The end result of this operation is an array of shoes produced every day for the wholesale market. In simple words this is a complete leather tannery cum leather products factory in the middle of a residential area in a historic building and all governed by ‘laws’ that prohibit this at several levels. This is one of several hundred small factories operating within the walled city in areas that are purely residential, some of them in historic buildings ‘protected’ by the law.

Let me now describe the specialised markets that have formed in the gardens around the walled city. Let us start from outside Bhati Gate and move eastwards. Starting with a paper market just outside and inside Lohari Gate are printing facilities, then towards Shahalami Gate is a vast plastics market which near Mochi Gate becomes a vast plastics printing industry. All of them are on illegal land owned by the government. The fact is that the government, no matter what its shade, is governed by bureaucrats and they are in the pockets of the traders.

Along the once eastern wall and the garden is the freight business which by the time it reaches Delhi Gate is a chemicals area. This is a time-bomb waiting to explode. But then if you enter Delhi Gate and proceed along Kashmiri Bazaar and on to the cloth markets and beyond, there are massive chemicals warehouses. As you turn towards Shahalami on both sides are wholesalers and in the hundreds of lanes that turn inwards are small warehouses and manufacturing units.

So along the main bazaars are wholesalers and in the lanes turning inwards are manufacturing units. The trend is to amalgamate various stages of an end-product and that then moves to a larger building. That is why a lot of historic buildings are victims to the wrath of the trader. Owning small factories ensures greater profits for the wholesaler. That is why the entire walled city of Lahore will, in a matter of 15 to 20 years, be totally engulfed by manufacturing units.

Just over three years ago this newspaper carried a story about a ladies shoe factory operating in the famous Asifa School inside Lohari Gate’s Said Metha Bazaar. Probably the school owner thought it more profitable to manufacture shoes rather than educate the girls of the old city. It is sad that our women’s rights brigade avoids taking on old city traders. They once did try only to face goons who showed them pistols and thrashed a few. No photographs in the media, no police report, no protest. The trader-politicians won yet again. Mind you of recent a politician now in trouble has managed to take over an ‘empty’ historic building inside Bhati Bazaar on the pretext of it being owned by a lady living abroad. That is the common pretext of these ‘illegal’ possessors. Mind you Butt’s Haveli has the same excuse.

But then the question arises ‘what about the inhabitants of the old city?’ Once the wholesalers gained strength, we see a lot of Afghans moving into cheap houses. The original ‘Lahorias’ moved to faraway colonies. Today over 60 per cent of the old walled city inhabitants are original Afghans who work as cheap labour for these factories and merchants. In over half of the houses Pushto is the spoken language. These are official figures. The reality is worse. One honest policeman once claimed that they were a security threat. He was transferred never to be heard of again.

The numerous questions that arise from this situation need to be researched. Will this spread of wholesalers backed by illegal factories engulf the entire walled city? The speed at which the Afghans inside the old city is growing might lead to old Lahore being without its original inhabitants. Is that possible? Will the historic buildings number further shrink? Will the truck stand ever be shifted to a new walled city across the river? Will the walls of old Lahore be rebuilt? Will new illegal gates be walled off? The list of questions is endless. “Is anyone listening”?