September Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 11 years ago

On the fateful night of July 31, Muhammad Haris was resting in his small three-bedroom flat in the congested Lea Market area of Saddar Town, Karachi. At around 8 p.m. he heard a terrible crash. Haris rushed to the window and saw an adjacent building tilting sideways. Within seconds, the whole structure collapsed.

By the time the dust settled, more than 20 people, most of them women and children, had been crushed to death under the debris of the five-storeyed Khadija Manzil. People from the neighbourhood started a search for survivors, but it soon became apparent that not much could be done for those trapped under the rubble. Cranes and heavy drills brought in by the authorities for the rescue operation could not make it to the site of the collapsed building on time. The congested lanes being just eight feet wide, it was difficult to take heavy machinery through.

As heart-rending stories of people who lost their families surfaced in subsequent days, authorities were quick to point out the culprit: a contractor raising a building on a plot adjacent to Khadija Manzil, had haphazardly dug up ditches all around.

Zia Jaffery, an architect who examined the site of the ill-fated building, recalls that just 12 days before the incident, Karachi received heavy rains and water had accumulated in the open ditches. “Water started gushing into the foundations of Khadija Manzil, removing the soil and creating a cavity. The building started to lean forward and ultimately collapsed,” he added.

Hundreds of such construction projects in Karachi are handled by private builders and supervised by unregistered engineers. Floors upon floors are built without official approval. These brown-bricked shabby buildings are a common sight in various old town localities, from Pakistan Chowk to Lines Area. The Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) does not have the resources required to check the way buildings are constructed in the city, and most of its efforts against illegal construction are bogged down by political interference. Days before the Lea Market incident, a building under construction collapsed in Liaquatabad Town, killing 11 workers. This was another case of poor engineering design and the use of faulty methods to erect a high-rise structure.

Arif Ahmed, controller vigilance KBCA, is responsible for ensuring that building laws are not violated. He insists his department is doing a fine job. “The total strength of the vigilance department is seven. I have two deputy controllers who each direct two assistant controllers. We have one car and a city of 20 million people to monitor,” he says.

The duties of these officials are restricted to ensuring that houses and apartments are raised according to the plan approved by the authorities. Any building that is ground plus four storeyed is categorised as high-rise and has to be approved by the KBCA. The builder has to submit details including building design, names of the contractor, architectural engineer and the  mode of construction.

Public support: The community banded together to work through the rubble, but some say the public should have raised a red flag about construction in the area earlier. Photo: AFP.

Notwithstanding the incapacity of his own department, Ahmed is critical of the public, saying that people are indifferent to their civic responsibilities. “In the case of Khadija Manzil, area residents knew that construction on an adjacent plot was mismanaged, but they did not inform us or any other government department. There is a strong community system in our society and people don’t like complaining about each other. This must change, they must come forward and point out faulty construction.”

KBCA’s limited vigilance extends to only buildings registered with it. According to Arif Qasim, secretary of the association of consulting engineers of Pakistan, at any given time there are 5,000 buildings under construction in Karachi. According to Qasim, half of them are illegal. A structural engineer himself, he has been affiliated with KBCA’s Technical Committee for Hazardous Buildings for 20 years. He knows how much and what quality of cement and steel has been used in supporting columns. He has seen Pakistan’s biggest city turn into a concrete jungle. “Even if, God forbid, an earthquake of moderate intensity hits us, 50% of the buildings will come down,” he maintains in an analysis of the condition of thousands of residential and commercial complexes which have popped up in the city over the last few decades.

The absence of any legal arrangement to ensure proper maintenance has raised chances of further mishaps. Recent incidents have also exposed the loopholes in property laws.

The crash of Khadija Manzil’s heavy concrete and metal structure sent vibrations through the surrounding area, damaging the base support of many other buildings. Occupants of nine buildings were evacuated the same night. Five adjacent buildings were declared dangerous — Haris’s family of five lived in one of them, Zulfiqar House.

The plight of these displaced families is pitiful. They are victims of a system that has disallowed tens of thousands of people the right to their own property. They are forced to live in run-down structures in desperate need of renovation. “My family is living with relatives and I have lost my job. My children are not going to school and my wife is under severe mental stress,” Haris tells Newsline. “The government has provided neither alternate accommodation nor compensation.”

The KBCA had partially demolished Zulfiqar House and other buildings that have been declared dangerous to live in. Broken furniture, a cracked mirror from a dressing table, a fridge and other objects are placed on the staircase of an adjacent building. Haris showed his belongings which were removed when six families residing in Zulfiqar House were forced to evacuate their apartments.

No time to waste: Rescue work goes on as the night darkens. Photo: AFP

Most of the men in this area do small-time jobs; one works at a store in Jodia Bazar, another at a shop in the Mobile Market. If it had not been for a stockbroker who took some of the affected families into his own home and later arranged rented apartments for them, they would have been out on the streets.

Every other building in the old town is governed under a system known as ‘pagri,’ which has no legal standing. It helps a builder protect his hegemony over prime land located in the heart of Karachi. The system allows partial ownership rights to the tenants who pay nominal rent to the builder. Iftikhar Ahmed, a victim of this system, explains: “I have been living in a flat for 25 years. Say I bought it then for Rs 200,000, and it is now worth Rs 500,000. If I want to sell it now, a certain percentage from the sale proceeds will go to the builder, who will then give the flat on pagri to the buyer.” Since the law does not recognise pagri, the builders have no liability. They spend very little money on much needed repair and renovation.

Zulfiqar House tenants have not allowed KBCA officials to demolish the building completely. They have no legal documents to claim property rights, just the hand-written receipts received against the payment of their monthly rent. If the building is razed, the builder can easily lay claim to the plot and get rid of them.

Muhammad Dilawar, Nazim Saddar Town, says there is an immediate need to pass legislation to clarify the status of old buildings in the area which are regulated by different systems. Thousands of dilapidated quarters and buildings are managed by the departments of Auqaf, Heritage and the Evacuee Trust Property Board. In the cases of the Heritage and Evacuee Trust buildings, residents can’t carry out renovations themselves. “A lot of buildings have been declared heritage buildings in Saddar Town. People are living in them but no one is allowed to touch a stone because of the Heritage Foundation, which does not spend a penny on their maintenance,” he says.

Approximately 15,000 Evacuee Trust properties are spread across Ranchore Lines, Radio Pakistan, Arambagh and the Jubilee area. Eighty percent of them are dangerous to inhabit and there is no plan in sight to avert possible disaster. Dilawar says that time is running out. “These buildings have outlived their lives. Unless a permanent solution is found, they will continue to collapse and lives will be lost every year.”

For Karachiites, the fear of living in dangerous buildings is not confined to old parts of the city. The Technical Committee on Hazardous Buildings recently visited Raza Square, a project housing some 150 flats in Gulshan-e-Iqbal. After initial assessment, it declared the project unsafe, sounding the warning that the structure is likely to collapse in five years. Architectural engineer Zia Jaffery, who is part of the committee, says years of neglect have damaged the inner structure of the apartments. “Absence of proper maintenance results in burst sewerage pipes. Water has seeped into walls, exposing the fading concrete. There are many other buildings constructed just five years ago, that face a similar problem.”

Builders do not consider project maintenance their responsibility. Once the apartments are sold, and they have their profit in hand, the builders simply turn their backs on the project. Babar Mirza Chughtai, chairman, Association of Builders and Developers (ABAD), says that according to the Karachi Building and Town Planning Regulations, people who have been allotted flats have to form cooperative societies for upkeep and maintenance. “The fault lies in our culture which does not promote collective responsibility. The role of union committees in apartments has been reduced to bill collection. Someone always backs out when there is talk of contributing towards renovation, sabotaging the whole exercise,” says Babar. He adds that there should be a law binding the builder to take advance maintenance payments for a five-year period, to ensure that repairs are made whenever needed during this time.

While it is unlikely that anyone will be held accountable for the loss of innocent lives, Amber Alibhai of the NGO Shehri names the culprits. “We are all responsible for the building collapse; we the citizens, the builders and the regulators.”