Business might be far from restoring at the ill-fated Hafeez Centre, as the traders begrudge the government’s sorry compensation plan
As the fact-finding inquiry committee set up to ascertain the causes of the catastrophic Hafiz Centre fire is yet to finalise its report, even after the lapse of a month, the traders of this mega business centre of electronics goods still await the fulfillment of promises made by the Punjab government and the city district management.
Most of them find the compensation offered by the government — soft loans and replacement of their gutted shops with the new ones at the Arfa Karim’s IT centre on Ferozepur Road —quite underwhelming. While many are demanding interest-free loans, others aren’t ready to shift business from Hafiz Centre. They want an immediate restoration and renovation of the business centre which presents a deserted look these days.
Meanwhile, Habibullah Randhawa, chief engineer at LDA, who was also a member of the fact-finding committee, is stated to have been removed from his new assignment, reasons for which are not known.
For the uninitiated, most of the country’s largest mobile and computer market was destroyed in a huge blaze on October 18, with the shop owners losing assets worth millions of rupees. It took the firefighters over 24 hours to control the situation as the fire ate up the nearly 500 shops. The retailers on the third and fourth floor bore the brunt of the fire.
Later, the city police and district administration sealed the building and declared it dangerous for business and other uses. A 14-member committee was formed by the Punjab government to carry out preliminary investigations into the horrific incident. A team of experts consisting of police and district government officials as well as member of Rescue 1122 inspected the plaza and found cracks caused by the fire.
Chief Minister Usman Buzdar announced a Rs 5 billion compensation package for the affected.
Mudassar Riaz, the Lahore deputy commissioner, says that although the government’s rehabilitation package may not cover their losses, it’s a good start: “The government is committed to facilitating the business community wherever possible.
“We’ve offered [the traders] loans on a nominal five percent markup. We’ve also given them the option of moving businesses to the IT Centre,” he tells TNS.
Traders find the compensation offered by the government — soft loans and replacement of their gutted shops with the new ones at the Arfa Karim IT Centre on Ferozepur Road — quite underwhelming. While many are demanding interest-free loans, others aren’t ready to shift business from Hafiz Centre.
Riaz says that the traders can return to their shops at Hafiz Centre once the place is renovated.
The traders are clearly not convinced. Malik Kaleem, the Hafiz Centre Traders’ Association (HCTA) president says they might opt for street agitation if the government does not pay heed to the woes of the ill-fated traders. “They lost everything in the blaze. All the government has offered them is interest-based loans. This is totally unacceptable,” he says.
“We want immediate rehabilitation and renovation of the plaza, besides compensation for the goods destroyed in the fire.”
According to Kaleem, early estimates show that the “fire caused a loss of up to Rs 2 billion. The wholesalers as well as small shop owners have lost most of their assets.”
Muhammad Zubair, a trader at Hafiz Centre, says that the government should immediately announce exemption from different taxes for them. “Over a month since the incident, nothing concrete has been done by the authorities. It’s becoming harder for people like me to make both ends meet in the absence of business.
“We’ve been running from pillar to post to make our concerns heard. However, only lip-service has been paid to us by the government,” he says.
Recently, the chairman of Pakistan Industrial and Traders’ Associations’ Front (PIAF), Mian Nauman Kabir urged the government to devise a comprehensive strategy in consultation with the stakeholders to ascertain the cause of the blaze at the earliest. In addition to compensating the traders for their losses, he asked for their full rehabilitation. Kabir also called upon both the federal and provincial governments to facilitate the availability of necessary infrastructure such as fire hydrants at Hafeez Centre.
He also promised PIAF leadership’s unflinching support to the traders’ community.
The writer is a senior journalist and can be reached at [email protected]