Monday, November 15, 2010

ARDESHIR COWASJEE ARTICES : The higher they rise…

On May 31, five days prior to the celebration of World Environment Day dedicated to the focusing of political and public attention on the dangers posed by environmental degradation, the dysfunctional government of Sindh (as dysfunctional as are all governments of this democratic republic) landed another blow on the citizens of Karachi, and legislated yet another brand of political and administrative pocket-filling.

The bill provides “for the creation of High Density Development Board to ensure coordinated and integrated development of the High Density Zones in the urban centres of the Province and to provide for matters connected therewith and ancillary thereto…”.

‘High density zones’ are areas designated by a high density development board under this act for construction of high-rise buildings in the urban centres of the province.

The members of the board who will sanctify the mass construction of lucrative high-rise buildings are (as is expected): chairman, governor of Sindh; co-chairman, chief minister of Sindh; members: secretary local government and housing, nazim of the respective district, executive district officer, MGPO or head of master plan of the respective district, and member/secretary is the chief controller of buildings or head of building control of the respective district.

The ‘objects and reasons’ are “to provide for effective mechanism of coordination among different planning and land-owning agencies to formulate a coherent policy for high density zones in the province of Sindh….”

The origins of this bill go back to the summer of 2008 when reportedly the president of the Republic decided that Karachi needs high-rise buildings along the lines of his second home in Dubai. Agha Siraj Durrani, Sindh minister for local government (LG) was entrusted with the task. By that time, the PPP had successfully taken over the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) which had previously been under the charge of coalition partner the MQM.

In a bid to give legitimacy to the upcoming proposed legislation, the KBCA, under its boss-man, the provincial minister for LG, invited a group of architects to form a committee to assist and guide the development of high-rise densification of this city. Most of their recommendations were naturally not acceptable to the LG minister and his men, in particular the creation of a Karachi Planning and Development Authority governed by a steering committee consisting of representatives of professional bodies involved in town planning and development, of the utility corporations and traffic departments.

The architects emphasised the need of such a body to the governor, chief minister and Salman Faruqui, imported from Islamabad, whose view was that the best people to oversee ‘high-density’ development were the people’s elected representatives — a poor joke given the circumstances.

However, some harmless recommendations were incorporated into Bill No.11 (Sindh Building Control Amendment Bill 2009) presented in October 2009 to the provincial assembly.

In regard to this bill, members of what is now known as ‘civil society’ — in this case prominent architects, members of academia, stakeholders, town planners and so forth — spearheaded by Shehri, made a presentation to the members of the standing committee on LG many recommendations of which were surprisingly accepted and subsequently introduced as a privilege motion to Bill No.11.

One important change was one clause which clearly stated that the largest stakeholders in the different planning and land-owning agencies are the citizens of Karachi “who are the ultimate end users to formulate a coherent policy for sustainable development and expansion in the city…”.

The bill lay dormant for seven months, suddenly resurfacing on May 22 under a new name — the Sindh Planning and Development Boards Bill 2010. It was withdrawn the same day. It gave the chairmanship of the board to the chief minister and it is thought that the MQM disapproved. So, all in any positions of power in this strange land being adept at deals, a ‘deal’ was struck and the chairmanship transferred to the governor, and the new bill, Bill No.14 (not on the printed order of the day) was suddenly brought forward as a supplementary order and passed, certain rules of procedure being dispensed with to dispense with its being put before an appropriate standing committee for recommendations.

There are no checks or transparencies in this bill, the non-political members of the board have their hands firmly tied and can do naught to oppose the wishes of their political masters.

Now, how does Bill No.14 of 2010 affect the ordinary citizen? Well, rather drastically. Say, a citizen is living in a particular area in which a plot of land is owned by one of our current ‘high-ups’ of whatever political party happens to be in power. The Sindh High Density Development Board can overnight grant permission to the owner to build a 50-storey building which will destroy your privacy, help to increase the loadshedding you suffer daily, dry up your water supply (already at a trickle) and ensure that your gutters and the outdated sewage system clog and overflow.

Then we have the traffic. In an already fraught and congested area some 5,000 residents will be added all of whom probably own one or two cars each.

This bill is iniquitous. It is highly damaging to the city and its citizens and is simply designed to benefit whoever holds power and plots of land at one and the same time. Yet again, we can only place our hope and our trust in the judiciary. Our justices of the higher judiciary have sadly become the sole salvation to which the bludgeoned citizens of this country may turn.

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