Lai Lament Redux | Daanish Mustafa’s Blog

Sep 2013

My friends and colleagues know better than to use the term Lai Naala around me. This is a commonly used pejorative name for the perennial stream that runs through the twin cities of Rawalpindi/Islamabad. The name Lai in the local Potowari language means “river”. The tragedy of the Lai with its present day appearance of a sewer and a waste dump starts with the attachment of the most unfortunate term “naala” to its name. In the Ordinance Survey maps of India during the colonial times, the term naala came to be attached to third order streams like the Lai. In the local language the term naala is almost invariably used to refer to either a drain or an inundation stream, and the Lai is definitely a perennial stream. Calling the stream a “river drain” is patently absurd. Also the local word for lower order streams is kas, as illustrated by the names of the five tributaries of the Lai–Niki Lai, Bedranwali Kas, Tenawali Kas, Kanitanwali Kas and Saidpur Kas. But unfortunately our Islamabadis and many local elites have come to adopt the nomenclature Lai Naala with all of its negative connotations. Now we treat the Lai like a naala–that is how this wonderful stream has come to be.

The Lai was once the pride and joy of the denizens of Rawalpindi. It supported a rich diversity of aquatic life including river bass and a variety of turtles. There is a stubborn turtle that used to sit underneath the Ratta Amral bridge until quite recently. But from a prized amenity, the stream has become a nuisance not only as a flood hazard but more chronically a conduit for solid and liquid waste generated by the twin cities. This year again the stream caused considerable anxiety and damage to life and property of the poorest residents of the twin cities living along its banks. Those poor residents have the same reasons as the turtles for not abandoning the Lai, even if it is killing them—they have nowhere else to go. In a moment of venomous satisfaction, however, I noted that an elite Islamabad hospital, which was notorious for dumping its medical waste into the Lai, was inundated this year!

Close to a decade of conducting research on the Lai has left me relatively numb to the insults that are inflicted on this stream. Starting with the Air force and Naval colonies, and the elite F-sectors, raw sewage and plastic bags are dumped into the stream. In downstream Rawalpindi, series of workshops, warehouses and sewage outlets in the Lai, further add to the brew. The encroaching housing behind pioneering mosques and madrassas in the stream bed make sure that flood peaks are a lot worse than they have to be. But the most recent insults of the proposed Lai Expressway, and possible diversion of Saidpur Kas to Korang river, could potentially be a death sentence for a gravely ill Lai.  I had thought that the most ill advised and expensive projects had died a much-deserved death because of regime change. The projects however, like a Phoenix, seem to be raising their heads again.

In 2007 when the Sheikh Rashid Expressway project was first launched we immediately made a presentation to Mr. Sheikh Rashid, a member of parliament from Rawalpindi, who was minister of railways at the time, to convey to him why the freeway was such a bad idea. I recall that he was quite chatty at the beginning of the presentation and quite silent at the end of it. Before leaving the room he said that, “one can only wager with the pigeon (kabootri) in one’s hand. The pigeon is out of my hands now that the President [Musharraf, Pakistan’s fourth army ruler] has announced the expressway.” Even he could see what a blunder it would be to build the expressway that would carry his name. Within 47 km from the head to tail end of the Lai, it would have to be a stupefyingly expensive undertaking to build a freeway that could possibly withstand the wrath of the Lai during the Monsoons–assuming that they would even try. Secondly, all that constricting the Lai channel with a freeway would do is to increase the speed of flow during floods and consequently cause greater destruction from them.

The second ill-advised proposal that is making the rounds is again consistent with heroic engineering ethos of our water managers. They propose to divert the eastern most tributary of the Lai, Saidpur Kas to Korang along the I. J. Principal Road. Diversion of Saidpur Kas will simply further reduce the dilutive capacity of the Lai for the 10 months when it is not flooding, thereby making life even more miserable for the residents along its banks. If anything, most of the women we spoke to along the Lai mostly welcome floods because they clean up the stream, something that the city administration cannot or will not do. Islamabad probably has the highest concentration of environmentalists and social activists in the country, yet the city is happy to send its excrement and waste to the poor, mostly Christian residents in the slums in the city and to its neighbor Rawalpindi.

The third bad idea implemented in the Lai is channel modification. They did dredge the Lai in 2004-2005, perhaps not knowing that a perennial stream like Lai can easily undo any channel modification very quickly, unless one keeps devoting resources to maintaining the modifications.

Lastly, a good idea implemented badly was the removal of encroachments along the Lai in 2005. The attempt was haphazard and unfair. Poorer residents were evicted, without compensation or alternative housing, and nothing was done to the land mafias that allow these communities to come into being in the first place. I recall that in 2005, while the encroachments were being removed elsewhere–in Dhok Dalal–where there was perhaps the only open space along the Lai in Rawalpindi, new colonies were being advertised, which have now become established residential areas in 2013.

According to research I undertook with the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET) and Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria (IIASA) on the Lai, its flood plain residents, especially women, list liquid waste, solid waste, and encroachment on the flood plain as more dangerous hazards than floods. Based upon our research we had two alternative proposals to the expressway. One, more ecologically friendly and avant-garde, would have been ecological restoration of the stream. Making of Lai’s banks into a park, with a bike path providing non-motorized transport link from Pindi to Islamabad. But we quickly realized that our society, and more so the government with its acute case of megaprojectvitus, is probably not ready for such cheap and low-tech solutions. So the next best alternative we proposed was providing a mono-rail corridor along the Lai from the airport to the Pakistan secretariat and F-10. The mono-rail mass transit would fix the traffic problems of the city. It would benefit both the rich and the poor residents of the cities. The expressway was costing US $ 9 million per kilometer in 2007 while the proposed monorail system would cost anywhere, between US $ 5-50 million per kilometer—a comparable cost profile.

Mono-rail’s low physical and carbon footprint coupled with provision of low cost housing to the poor, and better waste management could significantly improve the quality of life of the residents of the city. The minimal need for land acquisition for constructing such infrastructure could mean that the costs would be on the low side. International research teams have ongoing interest in the future of the stream, being that it is the archetype of urban streams in the South. Imaginative and enlightened attention to the fate of the stream and its poorest human neighbors has the potential make the Lai again the pride of Pindiwals and Islamabadis, rather than an embarrassment and a hazard that it is.

Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. He spends his time contesting the despostism of the reader over the message of the Author.

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