May Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | Society | Published 10 years ago

If you were driving down 26th Street toward the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, or driving from Bilawal Chowrangi on Shahrah-e-Firdousi toward Park Towers in Karachi on March 14, you probably encountered road blocks on both ends, as massive, heavy-duty earth movers and excavators towered over you.

The reason, as we all now know, was the recently announced traffic-management project by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), which consists of the construction of two underpasses and a flyover, along with a pedestrian walkway that will cut through the historic Jehangir Kothari Parade and Lady Lloyd Pier. The objective of the project, the KMC said, is to mitigate the volume of traffic that is expected to rise significantly after the completion of the Bahria Town Icon Tower being constructed adjacent to the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine.

The Bahria Icon Tower is a 68-storey high-rise being constructed by Bahria Town — the real-estate conglomerate owned by Malik Riaz — that will house commercial and residential units. The flyover project, too, is being financed, designed and constructed by Bahria Town under the supervision of the KMC, and is estimated to cost Rs 1.89 billion.  It is the first time that a public project of this magnitude is being outsourced to a private corporation. KMC administrator Rauf Akhtar Farooqui says that the KMC had approached Malik Riaz of Bahria Town for the construction of the bridge a few years ago.

“The project was conceived back in 2007 because we had anticipated the increase in traffic that needed to be eased,” he says. “We approached Malik Riaz because we didn’t have the funds to make it happen ourselves. We practically begged him to do it and he eventually agreed.”

Farooqui said the KMC held around 13 meetings with Bahria Town to convince them to finance the project for the good of the city.

Immediately after the construction began there was vocal opposition, with some residents of the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and Clifton Block 4 complaining about the increased traffic on arterial roads that resulted after the detours were implemented.

A DHA resident, who did not want to be named, complained that the construction of the project would destroy one of the most scenic parts of Karachi, which includes the Ibn-e-Qasim Park, the Jehangir Kothari Parade and the Lady Lloyd Pier.

“They’re building a monstrosity that will ruin whatever aesthetics of the area that we have right now,” he says. “This has nothing to do with the good of the people; they [Bahria Town] are doing this because it will help their business. It’s always about money in Pakistan.”

A resident of Clifton Block 4, Qudsia Kadri, complained in a letter to Dawn, that residents are facing, “a nightmare-like situation” as heavy drilling work during the night has caused underground water lines to burst, and has also disrupted PTCL lines. She also complained that “roads leading to 26th Street have been disrupted, and access to our homes is next to impossible.”

The historic Jehangir Kothari Parade has been significantly damaged by the construction next to it.

The historic Jehangir Kothari Parade has been significantly damaged by the construction next to it.

The letter also stated that business interests, along with the KMC, had started the construction of underpasses and flyovers around the Clifton seafront without any prior notice and that it had been approved without conducting legally mandated environmental assessments.

“It’s not that we are against development,” she says. “Our main concern was the damage to the temple, which is a world heritage site. This construction infringes on the rights of a minority community because their access to the site has been made difficult.”

Yusuf says that the Hindu community remains a much marginalised community in Pakistan and it needs the majority to voice their concerns for them, because a lot of them are scared, either because of pressure from the developers or because they feel vulnerable.

“Places of worship for minorities are not increasing,” Yusuf notes. “Unlike mosques, you don’t see any new churches or temples being built, so we have to preserve the ones we have. It’s about protecting the rights of our minorities.”

Asked whether the adjustments to the construction as described by the KMC administrator have alleviated the concerns of the temple, she says, “I can’t speak as to whether the adjustments will help or not, but I know that the Hindu community is not happy with it.”

Ravi Dawani, secretary general of the All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat, said that when they had only dug six feet into the ground, he noticed debris and stones falling from the temple, which is built in a cave and is one of only four such temples in the world and protected under the Sindh Heritage Act of 1994.

“But the design calls for digging almost 26 feet into the ground,” he explained. “If digging just six feet can create such tremors, one can imagine the problems for the mandir if they go ahead with the project.”

In response to the HRCP’s letter, the chief justice took notice of the issue on March 24 and summoned detailed reports from the Sindh chief secretary and the KMC administrator on environmental assessment studies and the possible threat, if any, to the Sri Ratneswar Mahadev temple.

Meanwhile, on April 1, Begum Farkhunda and three other residents of the DHA, submitted lawsuits against Bahria Town in the Sindh High Court (SHC) opposing the construction of the Bahria Icon Tower and the flyover project, citing that they both violated provisions under Section 12 of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) of 1997.

The following day the SHC ordered a stay on the construction of the underpass and flyover project after the DHA filed a lawsuit against Bahria Town and the KMC asking for an injunction on the construction.

The DHA claimed that Bahria Town had closed a part of Shahrah-e-Firdousi towards Bilawal Chowrangi and the A.T. Naqvi roundabout without prior approval of the concerned authorities. They also argued that the construction had begun without conducting correct traffic forecasts and were relying on a Traffic Impact Assessment Report compiled by Bahria Town itself.

As for the concerns about the temple, Farooqui said the KMC did not realise the “true gravity, sanctity or the sensitivity of the issue” until they began construction.

“As far as the temple’s concerns go, I believe they are valid,” he says. “So we had our engineers take another look at the designs. Initially, the distance from the ramp to the temple was set at 15 metres when the project began, but it has now been revised to 37 metres so the drilling impact is minimal.”

He further explained that to ensure the Mahadev temple is not affected by the construction, the mode of drilling has now been altered from mechanical to manual digging, which will take longer but prove less threatening to the interior facade of the temple.

Farooqui’s argument is that given the fixed dimensions of the area, the only option to construct anything is to either construct underground or overhead. The other option is to do nothing at all.

“The public needs to decide whether to opt for the mitigation of traffic or not,” he says. “We have no option as the Icon Tower already has permission from the government. A solution for congestion must be found, given that other high-rise developments are earmarked for this vicinity.”

Barring threats to the temple, reports also emerged that the flyover project had not gone through the legally stipulated approval process as prescribed by the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) of 1997.

According to Section 12 of the EPA, “no proponent of a project shall commence construction or operation unless he has filed with the Federal Agency an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) or, where the project is likely to cause an adverse environmental effect, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and has obtain  [sic] from Federal Agency Approval.”

The EPA further states that: “The Government Agency shall communicate its approval or otherwise within a period of four months from the date the IEE or EIA is filed complete in all respects in accordance with the prescribed procedure, failing which the IEE or, as the case may be, the EIA shall be deemed to have been approved, to the extent to which it does not contravene the provisions of this Act and the rules and regulations.”

The Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) can approve the IEE report of any project costing up to Rs 100 million, without holding a public hearing. For projects costing more than Rs 100 million, an EIA must be conducted and approved by SEPA after holding a public hearing. Generally, an IEE has to be approved within 45 days and usually SEPA approves IEEs within a month.

In the case of the Clifton flyover project, the KMC had submitted the IEE report to SEPA on March 11 and the agency, after evaluating and examining it, approved it in exactly a week’s time on March 18.

In defence of this process of environmental assessment, Farooqui took issue with the legislation itself.

“The law [EPA] is a federal law that was promulgated in haste, and was adopted by the provinces,” he observes. “Every city has different environmental factors. Urban areas are different from rural areas. You cannot compare Lahore’s environment to Karachi’s environment, as each region has its specific environmental factors.”

Over the issue of the time taken for the approval of the IEE, Farooqui said the completion of an IEE doesn’t take more than a few days. “There’s no rocket science to conducting an IEE, it can be completed in two days,” he said. “We conducted an IEE and submitted it to SEPA, who approved the report and so we went ahead with the construction. Why should I conduct an EIA, when SEPA says that an IEE is sufficient?”

When pressed about the transparency of the process, Farooqui responded, “Why should they [Bahria Town] tell you about anything. They’re funding it; it’s not a government project. He [Malik Riaz] doesn’t owe anyone anything.”

Farooqui was of the view that Karachi’s citizens have a habit of complaining no matter what the circumstance. “What really makes me angry is that a person has come forward and given [almost] Rs 2 billion for a project that will help the people, something which has never happened in the country’s history, yet people are calling him names day and night,” he says.

When it was suggested that Bahria Town had much to gain from the construction of the project, which includes the construction of a ramp that would lead directly to the Bahria Icon Tower, Farooqui was emphatic in rejecting that notion.

“No. Absolutely not!” he exclaimed. “Malik Riaz didn’t have to take up this project, because he had already paid the Rs 280 million development fee for the Bahria Icon Tower.”

On April 8, the DHA filed a contempt of court application against Bahria Town’s chief executive, Malik Riaz, in the SHC, for disobeying the stay order issued on April 2
that restrained the defendant from continuing with construction on the flyover and underpass project.

Construction near Park Towers has made it almost inaccessible for visitors and drastically hurt sales at the mall.

Construction near Park Towers has made it almost inaccessible for visitors and drastically hurt sales at the mall.

Meanwhile, a third lawsuit had been filed by Prime Management Private Limited (PMPL), the management company of Park Towers in Clifton. According to the petitioners, the traffic-diversion plan, which was announced on March 12 informing people of the detour to be taken for approaching Park Towers, had not been adhered to. The plaintiffs said that Bahria Town had instead implemented a different plan, which, along with the construction, was causing a great deal of inconvenience to the visitors as well as to commuters near Park Towers. Newsline contacted the company for their official version, however, the management declined to comment saying, “Since it is a sensitive matter, we are not allowed to talk.”

But a source within the company, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says that because of the ongoing construction, the mall was “facing a footfall decline in sales.” According to the source, “lots of shops are closing down, while new ones are not willing to do business with them.”

Although PMPL has filed a lawsuit, according to the source, they are not entirely against the project. “They just want the project to be speeded up, as they don’t want to go against Malik Riaz. They are just being hopeful that this project will do them some good.”

Bahria Town has responded to the raging controversy by submitting a reply in the SHC stating that the project was being undertaken in the public’s interest and that its opposition by the DHA was a form of blackmail aimed at Malik Riaz.

The counsel for Bahria Town argued that they had the required environmental assessment of the project conducted by the relevant authorities and that the project, which is under the KMC’s jurisdiction, does not concern the DHA. He also alleged that the DHA had ulterior motives behind the lawsuit and reminded the court that the DHA itself had constructed the Gizri flyover in 2009 without obtaining an EIA.

Newsline approached Bahria Town for comment, but Haroon Rashid, Manager Sales at Bahria Town, declined to comment saying, “To tell you the truth, I don’t know anything. We’re just trying to do good work.”

On April 12, the SHC suspended the stay order against Bahria Town and construction has since resumed. But five days later, on April 17, the SHC directed SEPA to produce the project file on which the IEE report was issued and place it on record.

While legal proceedings over the project will likely continue, the controversy over the project has much to do with the swiftness and secrecy with which this project was approved, announced and begun. Given the close relationship between Malik Riaz and former president Asif Ali Zardari — evidenced by the Rs 5 billion Bilawal House in Lahore that was constructed by Bahria Town as a gift to Zardari — as well as the recent reports of the partnership between Bahria Town and the Zardari Group,  the insinuations are that the PPP government, which is in power in Sindh, pressured the agencies and fast-tracked the project.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to transparency. Citizens have a right to be informed about the urban-planning projects that will affect their daily lives and their city. Merely because a private corporation is financing a public project does not make it immune to public accountability. It certainly does not mean that regulatory agencies roll over to the whims of wealthy businessmen, who have close personal relations with the provincial government.

In a growing metropolis such as Karachi, the need for future urban projects is only likely to rise given the increasing number of vehicles crowding roads and increasing commuting times for all citizens. On the other hand, there’s no question that our city’s few remaining historical sites must be protected and preserved, not to mention the minorities’ places of worship. Surely, a middle road can be found through a transparent process that satisfies both sides of the divide.

This story was published in Newsline’s May 2014 issue.

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.