The woes of the traders at Hafeez Centre are far from being over, even as the place is seeing a return of customers and business is partially revived
More than eight months after the horrific fire at Hafeez Centre, Lahore’s biggest commercial hub, best known for sale and purchase of mobile phones and laptops, the place is still reeling from the disaster that engulfed nearly 250 of the 600-odd shops and offices across its four floors and caused a huge loss of business to the traders.
A visit to the Centre shows that the woes of the shop/ office owners are far from being over, even as a part of it has been populated already and customers are returning to what has been their go-to marketplace by virtue of its merchandise and because of its location in the heart of the city.
The traders urge the government to deliver on its promised Rs 5 billion relief package.
To quote Waseem Ahmed, owner of a mobile shop at Hafeez Centre, “We put everything we had earned, back in restoring business. Additionally, we were fighting against the pandemic-induced slump in the market. But it seems that the government had only given us false hopes.”
He claims that the “damage done to the warehouses on the fourth floor was kept under wraps all this while; the shops remain shuttered, and there’s no mention, in the official documents, of the fresh imports that were destroyed.”
Umair Bari, a member of the recently elected Hafeez Centre Traders’ Welfare League (HCTWL), says that the “fire spread because of the poorly trained rescue workers who used water on plastic when they should have used sand. Where only two to three shops were at risk, over 200 [shops] were reduced to embers.”
Fayyaz Butt, the HCTWL president, recalls how in August last year, the Hafeez Centre was issued a challan for not having updated their fire extinguishing equipment and for storing damaged electrical boards. The challan included “a fine of Rs 25,000 and six months in jail.” Later, “the then union body prevailed upon the authorities and was able to have the challan overturned. But then we saw the deadly fire. This raised many an eyebrow. People started connecting the dots.”
There is “too much politics. It is keeping us from receiving the compensation money. As union bodies keep changing every few months, so do government officials tasked to look into the matter. The result is a lack of coordination between the authorities and the union body.”
An official at the Chief Minister’s Office, not wanting to be named, told this scribe that no such challan was issued or brought to his table. “After the fire, we did offer the affected the option of soft loans. Else, they could opt for alternative space. We’re still waiting to hear from the Hafeez Centre Traders’ Welfare League.”
He adds, “A compensation package of Rs 5 billion is in the pipeline. In fact, it’s being processed by the banks. But the HCTWL has to get back to us on that.”
When quizzed about the same, Fayyaz Butt says, “Within only 12 hours after the offer was made, we approached Jeff Heights [adjacent to Hafeez Centre]… the rent of the building went up by 300 percent.
“As for the loans part, nothing has been done so far,” he continues. “One of our shop owners requested a loan; he had to mortgage his property.”
Bari seconds Butt: “Eventually, it was us who, out of our own pockets, contributed towards erecting a hundred shop stalls in the basement, for our distressed shop owners. We know that this is no compensation for their woes.”
Atif Nawaz, owner of a small shop in the basement, laments that there is “too much politics. It is keeping us from getting the compensation money. The union bodies keep changing every few months, so do the government officials tasked to look into the matter. The result is a lack of coordination between the authorities and the union body.”
A spokesperson for the Lahore deputy commissioner says that “almost 20 percent of the compensation money has been paid, in the form of rebuilding and reimbursement charges.”
The union body denies having received any grant or compensation.
The writer is pursuing a degree in mass communication and media studies at the University of Central Punjab