In the square where gunmen sprayed a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team with bullets last month, a different spray – of flowers – is now on show, bursting out of the bonnet of an ornamental orange Volkswagen Beetle in the centre of the now notorious roundabout. The display is part of “Lahore in Bloom”, a spring ritual in Pakistan’s second largest city. But it is also a sign of the city’s resilience to the rapid deterioration happening in other parts of the country.
Lahore is famed to have all the best attributes of Delhi, India’s capital, 30 years ago; both were jewels of the Mughal empire. However, while parts of Delhi resemble a giant building site around which traffic inches slowly, Lahore’s tree-lined roads are unchoked and its neighbourhoods are yet to fall prey to dense over-development.
Lahoris are also accustomed to putting aside what might seem like an overwhelming security challenge. The city is a stone’s throw from what should be one of the hottest border crossings in the world, dividing Pakistan and India – two nuclear-armed neighbours that have fought three wars in just over six decades. But even in strained times, following the terror attacks on Mumbai last year, the border, south Asia’s equivalent of Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, is more theatre than menace.
Nowhere is this more striking than Lahore’s Defence Housing Authority (DHA), in the north of the city between the historic centre and the border. This affluent neighbourhood, only partially developed, is a powerful reminder of progress in spite of Pakistan’s long-standing rivalry with India and worsening quality of life as it faces an Islamist militant insurgency.
DHA, or Defence as it is known, was originally created in 1975 as a neighbourhood for the army’s retiring officers and once considered the most likely place where the first battles would take place if there was a conventional war waged across the border. Retired military officers still remember the boom of artillery fire echoing in the area during Pakistan’s two big wars with India in 1965 and 1971.
But the country’s maiden nuclear tests of 1998, ominous for many, were good for Defence, spurring the belief that a future conflict, if there was one, would primarily be a nuclear exchange rather than one focused on land-based invasions. “That thought is far from comforting. But you can be certain nobody in DHA now believes that their streets would see enemy tanks rolling in,” says a former army general who lives in Defence and was among those once planning counter-attacks in the neighbourhood. “In a nuclear exchange, it wouldn’t matter where you live. We could all be targets, no matter how close or how far from the border we are based. [And] perhaps with nuclear parity between India and Pakistan, we won’t have a war.”
Behzad Jamil, general manager of Chohan Estate, one of Defence’s largest real estate agencies, confirms that these days “there are no inhibitions on moving close to the Indian border”. Indeed, the area now bears few links to the military since many original owners sold their properties at healthy premiums over the nominal cost they paid and moved on.
Today, although most local administrators are still retired officers, residents are mainly wealthy civilians, including some of Pakistan’s most popular film stars; high-profile politicians such as Shehbaz Sharif, chief minister of the Punjab province and younger brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif; and people who have left the country but keep holiday homes in Defence. Some residents complain that the security details accompanying VIPs and their visitors often make it difficult to get in and out of the neighbourhood’s main entrance. “But perhaps this is the price we have to pay for success,” the retired general says.
Defence is divided into 10 districts, each with its own layout plan, and eight are already developed or under construction. These incorporate diverse architecture ranging from traditional Islamic styles to more modern western ones. Spacious houses on plots measuring from 250 sq yards to 1,000 sq yards are surrounded by palm trees. And there is commercial activity seldom seen elsewhere in Pakistan, with food outlets from McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken to upscale restaurants specialising in Pakistani, oriental and western cuisine.
Observers expect the same attractive mix to spread to the ninth and 10th zones, and as a result, property in them is coveted, with investors routinely buying and selling plots of both residential and commercial land.
Defence also has educational prestige since it is home to the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), often described as Pakistan’s equivalent to the US’s Harvard University, offering degrees in economics, political science, information technology, engineering sciences and law and an MBA programme that is the most respected in Pakistan.
The area’s most important asset, however, is the comfort of high security in a country where lawlessness is on the rise. Last month, Lahore saw two terror strikes: the one on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Liberty Square and an incident in which gunmen stormed a police academy near the Wagah border crossing. Yet many believe similar attacks may never take place in the better protected environment of Defence. Among other factors, the area has only one main approach road, guarded around the clock by its own police as well as plain-clothed security.
In addition to physical security, local administrators take great care in applying municipal bylaws. Rules, such as forcing residents to equip power generators with sound-proof canopies or forcing parties to turn loud music off by a cut-off time of midnight, are applied rigorously. In fact, on one recent evening, Defence’s guards appeared 10 minutes after midnight to force an end to an event at the home of a prominent politician, who was shocked when told that his electricity would be turned off if he did not comply. In Pakistan, where influential individuals routinely break the law, such incidents are rare. “In DHA, rules are enforced strictly,” says Shafqat Mahmood, a respected political commentator who lives in the area. “Unlike other places in Pakistan, the biggest attraction of this neighbourhood is that you can’t break the law.”
Property ownership is also more secure, since Defence has rules to guard against the fraudulent transfer of land titles, a problem in many other parts of the country.
In spite of its desirability, Defence, like the rest of Pakistan, has seen a slump in property prices in the past six months. But this is perhaps good news for those eager to move into the new zones before they become preserves of the wealthy. “In many areas land prices have fallen by up to half from just one year ago, [forcing] buyers dependent on speculative price increases to stay out of the market,” Jamil says.
According to Mohammad Bilal Malik of Defence Estate, another agency, a 500 sq yard plot of land ready for construction in zone six or seven now costs Rs4m-Rs6.5m ($50,000-$81,250), or “about 40 per cent less than a year ago”, while a similar-sized property in zone nine or 10 has dropped from about Rs2.2m-Rs2.4m to Rs1.4m-Rs1.5m. House prices in more established areas vary but Chohan Estate lists several five-bedroom examples built in 2007, priced from Rs23m-R26m. Malik adds that sellers also outnumber buyers by more than two to one, “so there is an oversupply of property”.
Some observers think prices could fall further if Pakistan’s recent political uncertainty worsens. But, in Malik’s view, they have already bottomed.
Farhan Bokhari is the FT’s Pakistan correspondent and James Lamont is the south Asia bureau chief
Chohan Estate, tel: +9242111 124 124
Defence Estate, tel: +9251227 32 34