August Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | Society | Published 5 years ago

Like a cross between a dystopian nightmare where machines have taken over the world and an archaeological dig gone awry, the once pristine thoroughfare that ran from the Jehangir Kothari Parade through Shahrah-e- Firdousi now lies in shambles. Concrete structures stand half-finished, while iron rods jut out of the earth and electricity wires and sewage pipes lie strewn about.

Ever since the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) announced its partnership with Malik Riaz’s Bahria Town for the construction of the Rs 1.89 billion Traffic Management Project, consisting of two underpasses and a flyover, the project — magnanimously touted by Bahria Town as a “gift to the people of Karachi” — has been mired in controversy and a protracted legal battle.

The project — being financed, designed and constructed by Bahria Town — which currently lies incomplete, would also service the Bahria Icon Tower, the Rs 10 billion, 68-storey high-rise being constructed adjacent to the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine, which itself has been under scrutiny for some time. Back in the ’90s the plot in question was slated for the Hussain D’Silva Apartments and the Ram Krishna Mission, a school for under-privileged children. Later it was sold to Galaxy Construction (Pvt) Ltd and it has now inexplicably ended up in the hands of Bahria Town.

Within days of the project’s announcement, Bahria Town’s massive construction juggernaut went to work, digging up huge chunks of Shahrah-e-Firdousi, including a section of Sharah-e-Iran. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also raised concerns about the construction’s potentially damaging effect on the 150-year-old Sri Ratneswar Mahadev Temple, located near the construction site.

All these sites, ranging from the Abdullah Shah Ghazi Shrine, the Sri Ratneswar Mahadev Temple, the Jehangir Kothari Parade, the Bandstand and Promenade Pavilion and the Lady Lloyd Pier are protected by the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act of 1994.  The environmental advocacy group, Shehri, noted in a letter to Sajjad Saleem Hotiana, chief secretary government of Sindh, and chairman of the Heritage Advisory Committee, “The law also protects the environs of these structures and prohibits building on or near the sites.”

The ensuing legal battle was brought on by lawsuits filed by the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and residents of the area, who claimed that Bahria Town had not conducted the legally mandated Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) required for the approval of a project of this magnitude.

In a legal game of cat and mouse, the Sindh High Courth (SHC) instituted a stay order based on a petition by the DHA. The court then suspended the initial stay order against Bahria Town and construction resumed, only to be suspended again when the SHC directed the Bahria town to conduct an EIA report for the project.

With construction suspended again, Bahria Town chose to take an unprecedented approach and audaciously announced on April 30, that it was suspending the project altogether and ceasing all further funding in response to the previous day’s court order to cease construction indefinitely.

A spokesperson for the Bahria Town claimed that the project had faced opposition from vested interests who had a personal vendetta against Bahria Town and Malik Riaz and that it could not continue with the project while faced with such malicious opposition.

“Bahria Town continued its resolve to deliver the gift to the people of Karachi despite all the negative propaganda and conspiracies,” the spokesperson said. “However, yesterday’s judgment in response to a DHA application that the work on this public interest project be stopped immediately has convinced us to believe that to work honestly for the welfare of the people is the most difficult task in this country.”

For weeks after, the issue seemingly fizzled away, while the construction site remained unfinished. But with the attention of citizens and the media occupied elsewhere, in June, Bahria Town quietly requested the SHC to order an inspection of the construction site, and the SHC directed the court nazir to submit a report after inspection within 15 days.

On July 7, a two-judge bench of the SHC held a hearing for the appeals filed by the KMC and Bahria Town against the SHC’s order restraining the real-estate conglomerate from resuming construction on the project. The counsel for Bahria Town requested the court to allow it to resume construction at its own risk and declared that it would fully abide by the EIA report to be submitted by SEPA, which has been at the heart of the controversy. The following day, the bench issued a notice to the DHA to submit its objections to Bahria Town’s application by July 17.

It was clear that Bahria’s earlier announcement to forego the project entirely was merely a hollow threat.

“Nobody could have believed that Bahria had given up the project,” says a DHA resident. “Did people really think that they would let it go unfinished? The whole purpose of the flyover was to serve the Icon Tower. The cancellation announcement was a bluff.”

On July 17, the DHA filed its objections on the report submitted by the court’s nazir in a hearing at the SHC. The DHA argued that the report did not reflect “the true picture of the position prevailing at the site of the construction.”

The KMC and Bahria Town, too, raised objections to the nazir’s report, arguing that the report was based on  “unilateral inferences drawn by [the nazir] from the construction schedule of Bahria Town without associating any independent expert to assess the quantum of construction work done so far.”

The SHC’s division bench has adjourned the hearing of the case till August 8, as the courts have been suspended because of a strike call given by the Sindh High Court Bar Association against Israeli aggression in Gaza.

On July 22, SEPA held the legally mandated public hearing to discuss the EIA report and give citizens a chance to voice their opinions on the project. But the  meeting devolved into a shouting match with the DHA,  residents as well as MNA  Dr Arif Alvi of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf objecting to the projet, and  the KMC playing defence.

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The digging for the construction broke through the Jehangir Kothari Parade, which is a legally protected heritage site.

Meanwhile, as the legal battle has dragged on for months, the construction site — previously considered one of the most scenic parts of Karachi — now lies devastated. Much of the traffic that once flowed through that section has diverted to Khayaban-e-Shujaat which is not meant to handle such heavy traffic. Park Towers, as reported in May’s issue of Newsline, has seen a drastic fall in sales. The furore that had erupted in the beginning of the project has gradually lost its spirit, and most residents seem to have resigned themselves to the new normal. The authorities, too, are seemingly oblivious or apathetic to the hindrances and inconveniences that residents are facing because of the incompletion of the project.

But despite the general malaise of resignation, some citizens continue to express their frustrations about the state of limbo that the project now lies in. While initially their consternation was directed at the project itself, some now direct it at those who they believe have impeded the inevitable.

“It’s been six months since the whole area was dug up and it still lies in the same state,” says Usman, a Clifton resident. “You can’t fight huge companies like these in Pakistan. What is worse is that the project would have probably been complete by now.”

Other residents, though, still stand firm against their opposition to Bahria Town’s project.

“Bahria Town is behaving like a schoolyard bully,” says Rabia, a DHA resident who used Shahrah-i-Firdousi to take her children to school. “They’ve dug up half the city and no one seems to care. They know they can behave that way because they have all the politicians in their pocket. ”

Vaqar Ahmed, a columnist for Dawn, who resides in the apartments near the construction site, wrote of more tangible complaints.

“A tsunami of dust started entering the apartment, coating every surface brown,” he writes. “My Internet connection died. The service provider informed me that the cables were cut during the digging for the underpass. It has been over a month since the service went down, with no restoration in sight.”

Roland deSouza, an executive member of Shehri, says that the so-called Traffic Management Project is really a consequence of the Bahria Icon Tower, which is actually the root issue and a far larger problem.

“Had it not been for the Icon Tower, that area would not need this project at all,” he says.

DeSouza says that what needs to be kept in mind is the law of unintended consequences.

“If this building [Bahria Icon Tower] is constructed and the builders are allowed to changed the entire road system around it, what happens when another building is constructed and the builder wants to change the roads to his advantage?” he asks. “And what about the buildings after that and so on.”

Despite the reservations of the residents, the elusive EIA report for the project, which was finally released in June, concluded that, “Construction of the flyover and underpasses at the proposed sites and operation of vehicular traffic is not expected to have unacceptable/significant impact on the aesthetics of the microenvironment and the microenvironment. The impact, if identified, will be mitigated through careful planning, suitable landscaping, and adopting appropriate mitigation measures, besides providing a monitoring and contingency plan.”

Yet the “careful planning” that the report speaks of was nowhere to be seen considering the secrecy and speed with which the project was initially set in motion five months ago.

Back in May, KMC Administrator, Rauf Akhtar Farooqui’s explanation for its expediency was that they had to make sure the project was completed before the summer monsoon season.

“Most of that area is made of soft earth,” he explained. “If it rains before the project is completed, no one can say what kind of damage it will do to the area and the structures nearby.”

Farooqui himself, though, is known since the late ’90s for expediting large development projects. Back in 2007, the late columnist, Ardeshir Cowasjee wrote:

“The city government’s project director of the [Karachi Elevated Expressway] KEE is Canadian citizen Rauf Akhtar Farooqui, an OSD (officer on special duty), a great favourite of the Pir of London and his appointed Karachi City Nazim, young Mustafa Kamal who has a Malaysian connection. According to Project Director Farooqui, while discoursing on another ‘development’ project, there is no need for such ‘time-consuming exercises’ as environmental impact assessments, when the aim is ‘rapid development.’ This says it all.”

Before being appointed KMC Administrator in 2013, Farooqui served as the chief controller of the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA), and in 2012, he was the subject of an inquiry ordered by the SHC to have his assets examined, having been accused of misusing his official position for personal gains. The plaintiff had alleged that Farooqui had ignored illegal and unapproved construction for at least 18 mega projects in Karachi.

While the inquiry into Farooqui’s alleged abuses predictably seems to have gone nowhere, it’s no wonder that the KMC’s partnership with Bahria Town carries the stench of collusion at some level.

The whole episode has also vividly exposed either the capitulation, or complicity, of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government which currently holds power in Sindh. Despite Bilawal House’s close proximity to the construction site, the Sindh government has chosen to deal with the matter with its arms folded. It’s not beyond the realm of reason to suggest that Bahria Town’s cozy relationship with former president of Pakistan and current co-chairperson of the PPP, Asif Ali Zardari, might have something to do with the provincial government taking, what on the surface, appears to be a hands-off approach in the matter. What happens in the secrecy of closed-door meetings is anybody’s guess.

In all likelihood, the Bahria Icon Tower along with the flyover project will ultimately be approved and completed, despite the months of legal sabre rattling in the courts. What it proves is that, in Pakistan, the might of money coupled with the right relationships can run roughshod over the feeble legal system in our country.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2014 issue.

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