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April 11, 2021

Smoke billowed from the Urdu Bazaar a week after it had caught fire. Encroachments and illegal structures hampered rescue efforts

One has to thread one’s way through the narrow and winding market, selling parts for all kinds of motorcycles, if one wants to reach Urdu Bazaar from Murree Road, the main thoroughfare of Rawalpindi. This motorcycle market is like a magnet for the youth. However, very few make it through Sarafa Bazaar to Urdu Bazaar in search of books. For those who do, there is bad news; it was burned down by a massive fire that started on Thursday, April 2 and lasted till Wednesday, April 7. Piles of burned books were left smoldering for days. Smoke billowed from the Urdu Bazaar a week after it had caught fire. Encroachments and illegal structures hampered rescue efforts. It is about time that Rawalpindi emulated Islamabad’s city management model.

“Basically, these buildings are old wooden structures. We put out the fire at one place, it starts somewhere else a little later,” Capt Anwarul Haq (retired), the Rawalpindi deputy commissioner tells The News on Sunday (TNS).

“It was like hell. One of the book shops caught fire due to short circuiting,” says Honey, the owner of an old book store that has burned down. His beard matted with soot and dust, his hair uncombed, he questions the role of the media. “It has been about a week [since the fire started]. The media is not reporting the matter properly. About 23 shops and the historic buildings that housed them have turned to ashes. Many people have sustained burns. Smoke is still rising from some places,” he said.

Sheikh Rashid Shafiq, a PTI MNA from the city and the nephew of Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, visited and tried to ensure that the Rawalpindi Development Authority (RDA) and the Municipal Corporation (MC) were mobilised promptly, some of the affected shopkeepers tell TNS.

An MC crane-operator on the scene is quick to contest this claim. He says their director, Ali Imran, had sent him and his colleagues to the site. “It took me about two hours to reach this spot. These buildings are very old. Encroachments make it virtually impossible for us to drive heavy vehicles here, even in case of an emergency,” he says. “I am here to remove the debris and clear the path. But I cannot do that until the fire brigade team puts out the fire and the smoldering stops.”

There is a sudden hustle and bustle in the bazaar. Some young shopkeepers are shouting: “make way for the fire brigade van.” And there it is; its siren wailing.

The one thing everyone on the scene agrees to is that the RDA and the MC are mismanaging the city. Illegal structures make even traversing the main roads a chore. The old bazaars are much worse. Ali Imran, the MC director, has been a cog in the machine that has destroyed the city, says Prof Tahir Malik, a teacher at the International Relations Department of the NUML and an old resident of Rawalpindi.

Apart from departmental inquiries against him regarding illegal structures, the Anti-Corruption Department (ACD) lodged an FIR last year against Imran and other senior RDA and MC officers on charges of corruption. ACD Director Kanwal Batool Naqvi had then told the media that the officers lived in swanky houses and drove lavish cars that were clearly way beyond their known sources of income. Imran was inaccessible at his office and has not replied to the questions sent to him regarding Urdu Bazaar fire. Since registering the FIR, Naqvi has been removed from the post. No action has been taken against the RDA officers she was investigating.

Local politicians count on the popular support of traders. Hence, they cannot afford to question the legality of this and other markets, as it will edge them out of popularity.

When the bazaar caught fire, Islamabad Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat too arrived on the scene with Anwarul Haq. Firefighters from the Capital Development Authority (CDA) and Attock Oil Refinery also took part in the operation to put the fire down. “In Islamabad, city management has been streamlined since the CDA and the Municipal Corporation Islamabad (MCI) are under the jurisdiction of the chief commissioner,” says Prof Muhammad Zaman, founder of the Sociology Department at Quaid-i-Azam University and an urban planning researcher. “Islamabad is a lot smaller than Rawalpindi, but it does extend a helping hand to the garrison city on such occasions. Rawalpindi, too, should adopt the governance model of Islamabad and be rid of poor decision-makers. The masses should not have to pay the price for their incompetence. The incompetence is evident from the way they have been unable to put down the in a week,” says Zaman.

Shiekh Rashid Shafiq, the PTI MNA, says his party and the government will support the traders. “Estimates of their losses have been sent to Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat in Lahore. Compensation grants will be issued soon,” he says. “The owners of these buildings will be allowed to formally register these for commercial use. They have been demanding the status for nearly a hundred years. It’s only fair.”

Urdu Bazaar is one of the many markets that make up Raja Bazaar. Before Partition, mostly Hindus and Sikhs would run this bazaar. After they migrated, the entire area fell under the jurisdiction of the Evacuee Trust Property Board. Siddiqul Farooq, the former chairman of the ETPB, tells TNS that Urdu Bazaar is not part of the original Raja Bazaar. “It was private land. Then some people set up shops in the area as it was adjacent to Raja Bazaar. If these buildings are to be commercialised, the government should buy the houses behind them. Only then will it be able to provide proper parking space for the new plazas,” he says.

Anwarul Haq tells TNS that four new parking plazas are on the anvil for the city. He is hopeful that these will solve the parking problem. On the difficulty faced by emergency vehicles in reaching downtown areas, he says that this is largely on account of temporary encroachments. “We have carried out anti-encroachment operations time and again, but they always pop up again,” he says. He declines comment on the suggestion that some of the city managers facilitate such encroachments.

Jabbar Mirza, a veteran journalist, says that Rawalpindi’s Urdu Bazaar is nothing like a bazaar of the same name in Lahore. Of late, he says, most of the quality book shops have moved to other places and been replaced mostly by clothing shops. Nonetheless, he says, the historic book market should not have been left to the mercy of crooked traders and greedy city managers. “It should have been preserved,” he says.


nterior Minister Shiekh Rashid Ahmed, who lives nearby, has ordered relief for the victims. Raja Bashart, the Punjab law minister, who is also from Rawalpindi, has echoed his sentiments. MNAs from the district tend to land ministries and advisor-ships, no matter which party is power. Local politicians count on the popular support of traders. No wonder, they cannot afford to question the legal status of this and other similar markets. Action against officers who are willing to play ball with the encroachers also appears unlikely.

Rawalpindi Commissioner Capt Muhammad Mehmood (retired) tells TNS that estimates of the losses are being prepared. He says those affected by the fire will be compensated as soon as possible.

The writer studies and teaches media. He can be reached on Twitter at @furraat

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