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May 3, 2009

Constructing the story of Hussain-D’Silva


May 3, 2009


Ashfaq R. Hussain has spent nearly 50 years building what many still consider the some of the best houses in Karachi, but today, he is bitterly disappointed with what the construction business has become.

“I am glad I got out of it when I did,” he declares. At one time, Hussain, 86, formed one half of the Hussain-D’Silva Constructing Company in Karachi, along with partner Jerome L. D’Silva. The company began business in 1945 and dissolved abruptly in the seventies, but even today, architects and developers like Arif Hasan and Nooruddin Ahmed call their work prestigious, while those who have lived in their buildings believe that had they continued working, they would have been the best developers in Pakistan.

So what was it that made the two men behind the Hussain-D’Silva

Constructing Company so unforgettable? “My partner and I were among the few who grabbed every opportunity life offered us,” begins Hussain. Beginning in 1945, the Hussain-D’Silva Constructing Company quickly become a pioneer in apartment-building in Karachi after partition. Today, it is most famous for expanding the city with its residential scheme Hussain-D’Silva Town in North Nazimabad, an area that was otherwise uninhabited. Their slogan “we provide you a house today that you could otherwise afford in 15 years” enabled people from the emerging middle-class to become home-owners through loans from the House Building Finance Corporation (HBFC).

A leading developer in the city, the company also planned and built housing for diplomats, along with offices for the government and for foreign companies coming into Karachi after partition. But it was not an easy road for the two partners, who entered the construction business as mere internees. “Fascination for construction work brought us to this business,” says Hussain.

Hussain and his partner D’Silva, who hailed from a noble Goan Christian family in Karachi, had been

together at school ever since Class 1. Such was their passion for building that the duo dropped out of law college to pursue a career in construction. Before long, they started getting contracts from the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) for small projects, and by the time the country had been split, Hussain and D’Silva had secured a major project constructing offices and residences for immigrants and government officials.

Previously, the majority of constructors in Karachi were Hindus, but these all fled to India after partition, leaving behind a vacuum the Hussain-D’Silva Constructing Company, along with others, jumped to fill. “It was a great opportunity,” recalls Hussain.

From then on there was no looking back. From 1949 to 1951, the pair worked on Hussain-D’Silva Town in North Nazimabad, putting up 450 houses on land allotted by the Karachi Development Authority and personally arranged for loans for those who could not afford the houses.

Later, inspired by apartments in Bombay housing hundreds of people on a small piece of land, they constructed Hussain-D’Silva Apartments near Gandhi Garden, making the 500 flats the first high-rise residential building in Karachi. In addition, Hussain and D’Silva built six prestigious residential flats for the officers of foreign banks and companies on land allotted by the KMC measuring 2,000 to 3,000 square yards. The company even moved beyond constructing residential accommodation by building 25 farms in Malir with the help of an agricultural expert. “People trusted us, and we worked hard to maintain that trust,” says Hussain.

But in the early seventies, D’Silva suffered a stroke on a visit to Canada. He never returned to Pakistan, signalling the end of the company. However, Hussain remained in the business until 1994 when his ailing health and changing trends forced him to retire.

“The quality of work has declined,” he says, lamenting the state of construction today. “People have started delaying the payment of loans. There is no sincerity or qualified labour anymore.”

Contrary to what it used to be during his time, Hussain feels that planning in construction no longer reflects public needs. “When we still worked, we would take both a vehicle and headcount on roads before beginning any project, and build bearing in mind the estimated increase,” he says. “There may be a lot of money in construction, but you need to have the blood for it,” says Hussain.

Hussain knows both he and D’Silva sacrificed their health for success, but he does not regret it. “You have to pay a price for something good,” he says.

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