December Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 10 years ago

This November, a man died for a piece of land.

No, this isn’t a story about a personal property dispute. Nisar Baloch was killed for trying to protect public land from avaricious land-grabbers for the past 15 years.

Nisar’s determination to safeguard Gutter Baghicha was well-known. He founded the Gutter Baghicha Bachao (Save Gutter Baghicha) Movement for this purpose. And it was this passion that cost him his life. He was shot dead on the morning of November 7, 2009. Nisar Baloch, 49, leaves behind a widow and an 18-month-old daughter.

According to Amber Ali Bhai, General Secretary of Shehri — Citizens for a Better Environment, and a long-standing colleague of Nisar Baloch, “Nisar was a non-violent, good and simple man dedicated to the uplift of the economically deprived community in the Golimar and Lyari area for the last 10 years. He worked selflessly for the cause of education and environmental conservation. He was determined to safeguard the remaining 480 acres of the 120-year-old Trans-Lyari Park (Gutter Baghicha) located on Manghopir Road in the centre of Karachi.”

Nisar’s murder followed a press conference he gave the previous day in Karachi in which he named the elements who were involved in the land-grabbing. In all likelihood, they were the ones who took his life. Nisar’s wife, Madiha, and his friends allege that local political elements are involved in his murder; following the press conference they were reported to have publicly threatened Nisar: “Hum tumhain dekh lain gai (We’ll take care of you).” According to Madiha, the law enforcement agencies and institutions in Karachi are reluctant to move against the criminals involved in the Gutter Baghicha and other park land. A school teacher at a government school in Gwadar, Madiha has written to Chief Justice Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry requesting him “to take lawful action against those responsible, order an impartial investigation of my husband’s murder and help preserve the dream of a developed Gutter Baghicha Park accessible to all for recreation.”

Gutter Baghicha is the largest continuous open green space in this city of 18 million people. Located in the SITE Town along Manghopir Road, the most densely populated part of Karachi, it is a public amenity space. It used to be much bigger — 1,017 acres of greenery in the pre-independece Trans-Lyari area — but land-grabbers have chipped away at it, bit by bit.

A Karachi Municipality map of 1892 shows that Plot No K 28/108 is 113 years old and its surrounding area was transferred to the Karachi Municipality by the British Crown free of cost. Its appellation of “gutter” originated from the storm drainage channels of the Lyari River. Later, these channels carried sewerage water, originating in the adjoining built-up areas, which was then used to grow cereals, green fodder and vegetables in what later came to be known as the Sewage Farm or Gutter Baghicha.

At the time of Partition, the Baghicha was referred to as “the largest urban forest in Karachi.” Apart from the cultivated area, there were also large tracts of natural vegetation. Old inhabitants speak of deer roaming freely and an abundance of flora and fauna. It was a place of natural beauty, recreation, peace and quiet.

In a 1969 map of Karachi, Gutter Baghicha is shown as a Municipal Garden spread over an area of 1,016.76 acres. Technically, it is still all government land, meant for public recreation.

Seventy-five-year old Fateh Muhammad Nazar, a native of Old Golimar, remembers Gutter Baghicha as a place of rest and recreation. “It was like a jungle when I was a child, a very beautiful jungle. We used to sit under the trees. People who came from remote places, after long journeys on foot, used to rest under the shady trees of Gutter Baghicha before continuing their onward journey. There were also deer in the area. I remember the shooting of two Pakistani films, Ladla and Jaag Utha Insaan at this location.”

According to architect Roland DeSouza, “There have been two managers of Gutter Baghicha during its 113-year history — the British who maintained it and KMC (predecessors of CDGK) who have abused it. Land-grabbers in the guise of CDGK officials, staff and politicians have cut down trees and occupied the land to build factories, farms, residential houses, water hydrants and petrol pumps.”

In the past three decades, Gutter Baghicha has become less and less of a garden and more of a gutter. According to the Karachi Building and Town Planning Regulations (Part II) of 1979 and 2002, plots like Gutter Baghicha can only be utilised for common public welfare. The growing population, unauthorised housing and the failure of the government to provide sanitation systems has led to sewage from large parts of the city pouring into the Baghicha. A treatment plant, developed in 1961 to treat the sewage water, is no longer in working condition. However, the storm water channels built by the British are still being used to bring water from Lyari River and wastewater from the SITE industrial area. This mix of untreated water, which is unfit for human consumption, is being used illegally for cultivation. Around 300 illegal factories are operational in Haroonabad and vegetables are being grown on 300 acres of land using toxic water from these illegal factories built on land which is being claimed as open land by the city government.

Over the past six months, political mafias have organised armed gangs to occupy nearly 50 acres of park land to construct houses. The City District and SITE Town governments are standing by as silent witnesses to these continuing invasions in broad daylight.

In the press conference that Nisar Baloch held a day before he was gunned down, he listed some of the demands that he and his Gutter Baghicha Movement friends, including Shehri—CBE, had wanted fulfilled. These were that the CDGK ensure that no further encroachment on, and misuse of, the amenity space is carried out at Gutter Baghicha; that the auction in 1993 by CDGK of industrial plots within Gutter Baghicha be declared null and void; that the illegal lease in 1993 by CDGK of 200 acres within Gutter Baghicha to the KMC Officers Cooperative Housing Society along with any sub-leases should be cancelled; that all illegal leases granted over the period of 1990-94 by SITE within Gutter Baghicha for 10 industrial plots should be cancelled; that the lease by CDGK in 1998 of a petrol pump plot on the 100-foot road at the entrance of Gutter Baghicha should be cancelled; the numerous water hydrants established along Gutter Baghicha boundaries by various parties, with or without the consent of CDGK, should be removed and, finally, the discharge of poisonous/untreated effluents by SITE industries into the Gutter Baghica sewage system should be stopped.

Nisar Baloch’s death will have been in vain if these demands remain unfulfilled.