KARACHI: Human rights activist Anis Haroon is not one to mince her words.
"Have they [judges] not noticed the large influx of migrants to Karachi? Surely, they must read newspapers," she reasoned.
Haroon's tirade was aimed at the Supreme Court's (SC) recent remarks to restore Karachi to its condition around 40 years ago. The orders have put civic agencies in a fix as they scramble about the city, demolishing any structures they deem to be 'encroachments'.
Set amid the sprawling gardens of the Governor's House located smack in the centre of the metropolis, the irony wasn't lost on the audience that they were hardly a few blocks away from where the latest anti-encroachment drive started - the Empress Market.
The panel discussion, titled 'Karachi - encroachments and demolitions', was part of the Adab Festival being held over the weekend and was moderated by Rumana Husain, author of 'Karachiwala - a subcontinent within a street', among other publications.
The panelists included Muhammad Toheed, an urban planner affiliated with the Karachi Urban Lab at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Noman Ahmed, the dean of the Architecture and Management Sciences faculty at the NED University, Advocate Faisal Siddiqui and Karachi Commissioner Iftikhar Shallwani.
Hussain opened the discussion with a synopsis of the anti-encroachment campaign so far. "Within a week's notice of the SC's orders, heavy machinery was deployed to carry out the demolitions," she said. "Almost 11,000 shops and businesses have been razed in around 20 markets," she added.
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But what about the human cost of these demolitions, asked the moderator.
Toheed and his team at the Karachi Urban Lab have been looking closely at the social aspect of the campaign. "Normally, when an exercise of this nature is carried out, there is a survey done to ascertain how many people and businesses will be affected," he explained. In this case, there was no survey.
"The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) itself can't decide whether the shopkeepers at the Empress Market were encroachers or their own tenants," he quipped. "Before the SC's orders, they were the KMC's tenants. After the orders, they suddenly became encroachers," he quipped.
Toheed also took issue with the KMC's promises of rehabilitation. "The KMC has announced that the affected shopkeepers will be allocated alternative shops through a balloting process," he said incredulously. These shops will be located in Liaquatabad, Soldier Bazaar and other smaller pockets of the city, where the KMC can find space. "Will their businesses even be able to survive in these obscure places?" he questioned.
Bound by the orders
As the session warmed up, one thing was certain. This wasn't going to be an easy one for Commissioner Shallwani. When it was his turn to speak, Shallwai started off by saying that the SC's orders had to be implemented and that it was their duty to do so. He then listed the difficulties they faced in implemented the orders - the threats of violence erupting and the negotiations held with traders to placate them.
On the human cost of the drive, Shallwani said that they had made a conscious decision not to demolish any human settlements. The drive was only aimed at clearing away encroachments that were commercial in nature, he said, adding that they had been unbiased in their actions, citing the examples of the Customs Club and the encroachments at the Bin Qasim Park, which had been razed as part of the campaign.
For Dr Noman Ahmed, the issue is not of encroachments, but of a lack of planning. "Several plans were drafted for the city," he explained. "But they all have one shortcoming - a legal cover to ensure their implementation." In the absence of a legally binding master plan, allotments of land in Karachi were made on an ad hoc basis, particularly to some special interest groups.
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"If you were associated with the defence industry, for example, you were entitled to special privileges when it came to the allotment of land," he said. "Those outside the framework of these special interest groups were left out," he explained, adding that in the absence of a political will and legal cover to implement the plans, this issue will not be resolved.
The judges, said Dr Ahmed, referred to an old Karachi. "It was in 1979 that the Association of Builders and Developers (ABAD) came into being. Before that, there were no such issues when it came to land allotments," he said, referring to the nexus between the builders' special interest groups and civic agencies.
The SC's perspective
Advocate Siddiqui, who is a constitutional lawyer, was of the view that the issue is one of perspective and must be seen in context of the underlying circumstances in which the SC's orders came about.
Frist, said Siddiqui, was the vacuum that existed in Karachi's political and administrative set up. "One political party, that had ruled Karachi for so long, had suddenly disappeared," he recalled. Another party, which is in the government, has a parasitic relationship with the city. "In this situation, the SC stepped in," he said, adding that this wasn't the first time that the SC had done so. Remember the 2013 order that started the Karachi Operation?
The biggest problem, according to Siddiqui, is that the people, against whom the action is being taking, have no representation in court. "In this case, there is no due process because the judges are looking at the case from only two angles," he reasoned. One is the judges' own perspective, which is limited to the law. The other voice is that of the executive - the bureaucracy, provincial government and other civic agencies. The latter simply want to save their jobs and put all the blame on the people, while at the same time, "hide their own incompetence and corruption".
"The Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA) is one of the most corrupt departments in South Asia, if not the whole world," remarked Siddiqui. "They have taken billions in bribes and destroyed the city," he said, adding that the anti-encroachment drive should start with the SBCA officials who allowed all these encroachments in the first place.
"Not many people are aware that the SC's orders call for these corrupt SBCA officials to be held accountable and the money recovered from them to be used for rehabilitation of affected persons," he said.
For Siddiqui, the issue is quite solvable. The courts must be shown the complete picture and for that, the civil society will have to get involved. "Courts make rash decisions and then take them back. The judges will rectify some of the negative aspects of this ruling if they are provided the relevant information," he predicted.