As he chain smokes, real estate agent Siddique* pulls out a memento. “I used to work with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,” he says, showing a photograph of him with the late Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) founder. “Now this wall built by the PPP government has ruined my business.”
The towering wall cordons off Bilawal House, but has also choked off profits for businesses and left residents struggling for normalcy.
Bilawal House has been officially designated a presidency. When the president is in Karachi, official meetings are held at the Clifton Block 3 address. What was once an upscale residential area with a thriving commercial district is now being abandoned by droves of people.
The District South authorities deny any responsibility for the wall, which Barrister Naimur Rahman says is “completely illegal” because you cannot block a road in front of public housing without “due cause”.
Property prices and rents have fallen. Real estate agent Noor Abrejo says that property in the area used to go for Rs20,000 to Rs26,000 per square foot but was devalued by 10% to 15% after barriers were set up. The owner of a Rs7 million flat would be lucky to get Rs3 million for it, says property dealer Mohammad Bashir.
Rents have also nosedived. “They used to charge 0.05 % of the property’s full value, now it has dropped to around 0.02%,” Bashir said.
Commercial activity has taken a major hit. Bashir and Abrejo claim that a small fraction of the 1,000 shops in the area are still open. According to Bashir, “A cloth market was opening up, but the merchants left once this started. When someone asks for my advice I say there is no point opening a business here.” He has been trying to sell his business for several months but hasn’t found a buyer. Taiyaba Malik, the owner and principal of CornerStones School, moved to the area and invested in a larger property to increase enrolment. But she is faced with parents who constantly complain about road blockades, especially when the president is in town. “This may have been made safer for the president but we don’t feel so. After the blast in Phase VIII we worry that we’re located next to another man who has a lot of enemies.”
A resident said they are advised against sitting on terraces facing Bilawal House because of security risks. “Who would want to live here? When there is VIP movement guards are sent into buildings. They are sitting on top of your head on the roof.”
However, there are mysterious buyers snapping up property. Property dealers estimate that about 80% of the bungalows on the same side as Bilawal House have been sold, but there is no official figure to back this.
Abdul Sami Khan of the Clifton Residents Association says people are selling because they don’t have a choice. “If friends come to visit, their cars are constantly checked by security [officers].” Khan said residents approached the City District Government Karachi and the Sindh chief minister last year but their concerns weren’t addressed.
Adviser to the Sindh chief minister Sharmila Faruqi says that while the wall has inconvenienced people, they “should be thankful because it is extra security and it’s for free.”
Barrister Rahman and Faruqi said people can take the issue to court, but residents feel helpless while there is a PPP-led government. “Is anyone going to bother the Supreme Court to take suo motu notice of this illegal wall when it won’t be implemented?” says Amber Alibhai of the NGO Shehri. “Nothing will be done until people take pickaxes and tear it down.” Bashir offers a dramatic comparison. “The day the government changes we can bring down this wall. If the Berlin Wall can fall, so can this one.”
*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy
Published in The Express Tribune, March 26th, 2012.
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