Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ardeshir Cowasjee Articles: A stitch in time saves nine

Rather than tackling problems under established procedures and rules, as and when they occur, our government functionaries procrastinate, seeking magical solutions that will satisfy everyone, until the heavy hand of the law descends on all.
They allow unlawful situations to deteriorate to the extent that addressing them becomes difficult or virtually impossible.
In March 2010, former Karachi Nazim, Naimatullah Khan, petitioned the Supreme Court against the shameless brazen conversion of amenity spaces all over his “sinking city” into private residential and commercial estate. He told the court that political, ethnic, sectarian and religious groups, in collusion with the City District Government Karachi (CDGK) and functionaries of the provincial government, had been and were in the process of occupying and usurping public land for pelf.Naimatullah submitted satellite images of encroached parks/playgrounds, impotent complaint letters addressed to the prime minister, the Sindh governor, chief minister, chief secretary and a string of politicians and administrators of the city and province.
Also submitted was comprehensive supporting documentation (news clippings, opinion columns, photographs).
He acknowledged the courageous role of the apex court in recent years in arresting such anti-public interest practices all over Pakistan — including Islamabad, Lahore and Murree — and prayed that Karachi’s amenity spaces be restored to designated master-plan use.
On Feb 2, 2011, a full bench comprising Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, Justice Khalil-ur-Rahman Ramday and Justice Ghulam Rabbani, directed the CDGK to demolish, within 30 days, all encroachments and illegal buildings (including government and political party offices) in Karachi’s public parks and amenity spaces. When informed that religious structures also existed on these plots, the honourable judges observed that illegally built mosques could not be considered legitimate constructions.
The special force (supported by area police) and criminal courts established last September under the Sindh Public Property (Removal of Encroachment) Act 2010 could be well utilised to assist in this gigantic operation against amenity-space usurpers. Encroachers (and their partners in government and police) are liable to onerous fines and heavy prison sentences, aside from underwriting demolition expenses.
The Karachi scenario is worse than as described by Naimatullah. For instance, Webb Ground in Lines Area is still being utilised by the Makro-Habib mega-store 12 months after the Supreme Court handed down a decision that the amenity plot was not the defence ministry’s to lease, and that, in any case, government land could not be leased to NGOs at throwaway prices. The plot had been master-planned as a playground in 1983 and could not be used for commercial purposes.
When I talked to young Mustafa Kamal in 2008, the then city nazim frankly admitted that his party had settled and housed political workers on the parks of North Nazimabad. He asked why we were not tackling the increasing mosque encroachments on amenity spaces in the city, and stated that he would remove his party’s encroachments when the mosques were dismantled — and this from a mayor sworn under law to protect the takeover of public land.
Karachi’s Cantonment areas are not free from this menace. Some 20 per cent of a park adjacent to The Forum in Clifton is being used for parking cars from nearby illegal commercial structures: but for determined citizen action, the entire park would today be a multi-storeyed parking-plaza (we fail to understand the difference between ‘park’ and ‘parking’). Usmani Park on the seafront in Defence Housing Authority in 2005 was leased for a huge shopping-cum-entertainment-cum-residential complex before the high court stopped it under the ‘public trust doctrine’.
A 2009 series of columns entitled ‘I own Karachi — and can sell it!’, dealt with the escalating rape of amenity spaces in the city : the land-grab of over 50 park/playground plots including Gutter Baghicha, unlawful conversion by the City Council of numerous amenity spaces (2.5 acres at Clifton beach-promenade, 40 acres at Mahmoodabad sewage-treatment plant, etc), setting up of MQM party offices on 175 public plots, and auction of amenity land including public-building, dispensary, community-centre/garden, post-office, and car-shelter plots.
In September 2009, my friend and former chief secretary of Sindh, Kunwar Idris, wrote in this newspaper: “The nazim [Mustafa Kamal] of Karachi was heard complaining on television the other day that he could not prevent encroachments in Gutter Baghicha because the police wouldn’t come to his help. Surely he knows that both under the local government and police laws he is responsible for law and order and the chief of the district police is also answerable to him.
“Deputy commissioners had no better control over the police under the colonial laws than the nazim now has in Musharraf’s system. No deputy commissioner however could ever disown responsibility for encroachments. This writer was deputy commissioner of Karachi 40 years ago for four years. Those were not the best of times for the administration and Gutter Baghicha even then was a favourite target of professional encroachers. But they were able to nibble at the edges and no more. Losing 400 acres to them in four years signifies total lawlessness or connivance — neither should be tolerated.”
Enrique Penalosa, the outstanding former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, visited Pakistan in early-2009. He rightly brought up the future generations residing in congested cities bereft of parks, playgrounds and open spaces. What will they think of us, their forebears? That we were uncaring, selfish and rapacious, that our greed for money was never slaked?
He pointed out the obvious fact that in the future wealth and other assets can be created, but hoggishly devoured open spaces and parks once meant for the beneficial use of citizens can never be restored.
We must wish more power to the elbow of the Supreme Court!

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