“IF one were to go by all this flaunted wealth, it would appear that people in this city are living life in another country.” A friend of mine from Karachi made this observation whilst standing outside a glitzy shopping mall in a well-kept part of Lahore. The caustic remark made me take stock of the surroundings, and had it not been for the sagging electricity wires and the rusting, ugly poles carrying them, the entire setting would’ve been perfectly at home in some decidedly un-Third-World country.
There is little doubt that Lahore, at a glance or a gaze, appears to be a very prosperous city. The level of infrastructure development — exhibited through a web of flyovers, underpasses, and highway-esque roads — is far superior to other urban settlements in the rest of the province. Along the way are obvious markers of consumer-driven modernisation — restaurants, consumer goods retailers, hotels, and shopping malls — all of which cater to a restricted income spectrum that has the lower-middle class on one end and the ultra-elite on the other. Finally, inhabiting this garish landscape is a population that takes extra pride in gratuitous exhibitions of wealth and ostentation. These displays are humorously chalked down to the ‘big hearts’ (khulay dil) and other such essential traits of the city’s natives.
An obvious outcome of Lahore’s development has been rapid suburbanisation. This refers to the development of spacious, gated communities and commercial areas further away from what’s traditionally been considered the centre of the city. Nearly all of the southwestern parts of Lahore district have seen a conversion from low-income settlements or mid-sized agricultural holdings to private or publicly run housing societies and marketplaces designed for the nouveau riche/upwardly mobile middle class.
This rapid demand for relatively spacious housing, planned neighbourhoods, and other accompanying amenities — such as the Beaconhouse School System branches, and fast food chains — comes in the face of rising incomes for a certain portion of the population. According to the Punjab government’s cluster survey, 20pc of all households in Lahore now own at least one car (the figure is as high as 40pc in some areas), so they obviously need space to park them and roads to drive on. Similarly, inter-generational cultural change means joint holdings get distributed, and as family structures get ‘nuclearised’, the demand for new housing goes up.
However, the darker side of Lahore is its rapid gentrification. This refers to significant increases in land and rental prices, and development of higher-end commercial spaces, resulting in the purposeful or inadvertent elbowing out of low-income households from residential and public spaces.
This current process of gentrification is not just a market-based phenomenon, arising out of private-sector growth, but also an outcome of government planning priorities that appear to favour people with cars and fetishes for consumer goods.
Areas within the city previously designated for low-income families, such as Nishtar Colony and Kot Lakhpat, have seen no form of rent control or government action against speculative activity. As a result, rental rates now hover around Rs15-20,000 per month — twice the rate of minimum wage — for two-bedroom portions. This astronomic rise is taking place in a city where 26pc of the population, mostly from the lower-income group, lives in rented accommodation.
A few weeks ago, the government announced it would be acquiring 45,000 kanals of land in the southeastern fringe of the city for a new middle-class housing scheme. This scheme will be served by a dedicated new road, thus ensuring higher plot prices, and will displace people living in at least four villages, many of whom actually work in the city as labourers.
A fraction that own land in the villages will be given exemption plots, while everyone else will have to find new spaces further out to populate. This displacement will be similar to the one seen during the army-managed expansion of Defence Housing Authority in the eastern end of the city.
Such processes are common in other parts of the Third World too, but what is striking is the near-consensus within Lahore on this particular pattern of development. Unlike in Karachi, where organisations like Shehri, or in some cases even political parties, have sought to protect low-income populations from displacement, not many people seem to be bothered about the biased nature of development, or the accompanying elbowing out of the poor.
Everyone who matters seems to passively buy into the idea that low-income, ‘less-modern’, spaces need to be hidden from view, and the city garlanded with concrete and glass.
Even some inner quarters of the old city, the few remaining residential pockets for low-income households, have undergone rapid commercialisation or ‘beautification’. This is to ensure that ‘real Lahori’ neighbourhoods, and their accompanying artifacts, can be consumed and enjoyed by those living elsewhere.
By visiting these older neighbourhoods for exotic food, or for staging wedding photo-shoots amidst Mughal architecture, the better-off attempt to fulfil their need for cultural authenticity, given that sterile gated communities offer no such solace.
None of this gentrification and careful manicuring of space can alter the reality of Lahore’s heavy reliance on low-income labour. They work in factories, retail outlets, restaurants, and households, forming an integral, albeit rarely acknowledged part of everyday life. Without them, the city’s economy and many segments of its population would simply be unable to function.
Knowing this, a bare minimum would be to expect that they be given some stake in the way the city is designed, managed and maintained. However, given the overwhelming consensus for the status quo, this expectation will likely remain unfulfilled for quite sometime.
The writer is a freelance columnist.