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January 14, 2019

Crippling Karachi selectively

Opinion

January 14, 2019

Hamlet: Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit,

Polonius: Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. [Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 193–206]Yes, our old men at the helm have wrinkled faces with plentiful lack of wit. And yes again, though this be madness, yet there is method in it. This lack of wit has caused immense harm to the national economy. This madness has resulted in decisions and verdicts that defy logic.

The method with which Pakistan ended up owing not millions but billions of rupees to foreign companies in damages for breach of contract is sheer madness. Be it the privatisation of Pakistan Steel or the electric power plant agreements, court verdicts have had a devastating impact.

A recent visit to Karachi presented a picture that is marred by destruction, and despondency among lower and mid-level businesspeople and shopkeepers. Surprisingly, the demolition of thousands of shops and the dispossession and unemployment of millions of people have attracted only scant attention in the mainstream national media, both electronic and print. Living in Islamabad, Lahore or Peshawar, people are hardly aware of what calamity has befallen upon the traders and daily-wage earners of Karachi. You just need to take a quick drive from let’s say Malir to Saddar or from Shahrah-e-Liaquat to Nishtar Road to see the trail of destruction.

Thousands of businesses worth billions of rupees have been crippled. This devastation is very selective and there seems to be a method behind this madness. For example, if you start from Saudabad, Malir, where I spent my childhood, you see hundreds of shops whose shutters have been dismantled even if they were within the specific bounds. You notice boards over those shutters strewn across the debris. Awnings, ledges, and shades that prevent sunshine and rain from entering the shops have been pulled down, even if they don’t cause any obstruction to movement.

Yes, encroachments on government land need to be removed but this needs to be done in an appropriate way. What obstruction does a sun-shade present? You get surprised when you see certain shops, especially those owned by certain people, spared from any damage. For most shops, even a minor outgrowth was not tolerated, but for some others entire footpaths and pavements have been left as occupied as ever. You wonder at this selective treatment, but then you remember the entire state machinery behaving in a very selective manner, with one set of standards for some and another set for others.

You move to Saddar and see Empress Market free of encroachments. Good. But what encroachment are we talking about? Those bookshops where I used to buy my college books and stationery in the 1980s. Those pet shops, where we as children were fascinated by furry puppies and parrots and parakeets. The tea shops where my father bought loose and unpacked tea leaves because in the 1970s we could not afford branded tea in packets. These shops were there from as far back as I can remember. Was there no other way to get rid of encroachments?

This is not to justify unlawful and illegal occupation of land. The point is that the old men with wrinkled faces should have thought about the livelihood of thousands of families. There should have been a plan for their relocation and resettlement. They should have been compensated for their goodwill and for their running businesses. The government and the state at all levels are responsible for people’s wellbeing, and not the other way round. This destruction is selective because two high-rise towers built in Islamabad in a restricted area without proper justification and legal grounds are regularised.

The regularisation verdict takes into consideration the money spent by the buyers of apartments in those towers. Most of the buyers are serving or retired government and state functionaries. The officials of the Capital Development Authority (CDA) are blamed for negligence but no responsibility has been fixed. It has only been asked whether CDA officials were sleeping while the illegal towers were being built. And now, ostensibly, there is sympathy for the buyers of these illegal properties and no one wants to deprive them of their investment.

The same question is not asked of the KMC and Sindh government officials. When 50 or 60 years ago, the markets surrounding Empress Market were being built, who were the officials? Is it difficult to find the names of these officials from government records, since they were the ones responsible for preventing such encroachments?

The destruction is selective because in case of certain alleged corruption by politicians, records from decades-old businesses and properties are sought and produced by the state. But no record can be found against government and state officials.

Can’t we ask if the justice system was asleep when these encroachments were allowed to be set up? Can’t we question the negligence shown by the building control authorities and their responsible officers who were supposed to have stopped such transgressions? If the Bhuttos and Sharifs and Zardaris can be punished again and again for the crimes they may or may not have committed, why can’t retired or serving officers of state bureaucracy be punished for their crimes? Karachi is a case in point where the government and the state have done tremendous harm first by allowing encroachments and then by dismantling them without alternative arrangements.

Now we come to the thousands of shops around the Karachi Zoo that have been razed to the ground, despite the fact that they were lawfully built and the traders had been paying rent to the government for decades. In one fell swoop you go with bulldozers and demolish their livelihood and nobody blinks an eye. The same is the case with the Auto Market, Akber Road, the Tyre Market near M A Jinnah Road, and Urdu Bazaar. There are not hundreds but thousands of businesses running in these areas and markets, all of them have all utilities provided by the government. If they were unlawful, how could they get electricity?

The prime minister has time to visit temporary shelters purportedly being developed for the homeless but he has no time to visit Karachi and meet those who have been rendered unemployed and unable to pay their basic expenses. The PM deems it appropriate to check the quality of mattresses and quilts being placed in those shelters, but reckons it inappropriate or insignificant to read the appeals from the affected traders of Karachi who are bona-fide taxpayers, much more than any other city in the country.

Donations for dams can be collected in London but we can’t take a look at Karachi, which is being crippled like no other city in Pakistan. Pakistan’s economy is teetering but you reduce the number of taxpayers by destroying their businesses. You beg and borrow from the world but beat and bruise your own potential saviours who pay billions in taxes. This is what I call madness – selectively imposed on the people of Karachi.

The writer holds a PhD from the

University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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