Cowasjee’s battle for Karachi will go on

Published: November 27, 2012
Champion of the city’s environment, Ardeshir Cowasjee was a regular on court roster. ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID

Champion of the city’s environment, Ardeshir Cowasjee was a regular on court roster. ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID

KARACHI: An old, beautiful tree looms in front of the Cowasjee residence in Bath Island, hiding the house from the street. Most people would have cut that tree down.

Not Ardeshir Cowasjee, the legendary Dawn columnist and activist, who died on Saturday.

The champion of Karachi’s environment and its landscape – among other causes that he espoused and rallied for in his weekly acerbic columns – was a regular fixture in the Sindh High Court’s roster.

Cowasjee was the pioneer of public-interest litigation that now dominates headlines.

His lawyer, Barrister Abdur Rahman, told The Express Tribune that the Costa Livina building case “set the landmark”.

His father Barrister Naimur Rahman represented the late Cowasjee in the Costa Livina case, which involved a number of influential people trying to take over a portion of Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim. “Previously a person had to be personally aggrieved in a case,” Rahman said. “But in this case, it was held, once and for all, that any person can petition the court in the public interest.”

“This was the case that opened the doors for public-interest litigation.”

In a 2010 column, Cowasjee described this case as a ‘partial success story’, which involved a commercial plot from the Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim land, and eventually being allotted to build a high-rise commercial and residential complex. After its conversion was successfully challenged, the builders managed to get stay orders and eventually the skeleton of their building was regularised by the Karachi Building Control Authority.

Through Cowasjee’s litigation, illegal construction was stopped, rules were enforced and allotments were cancelled. In the Glass Towers case, the Supreme Court ruled that the part of the building that had been constructed beyond the ‘cut line’ of the plot, and should be demolished.

There are currently 30 to 40 cases still pending in the high court that Cowasjee had filed, and Rahman represented him in each case. By his count, Cowasjee must have filed over a 100 cases in his lifetime. “Right up to the last week, I was fighting an amenity plot case – the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) was trying to build their office building on a plot reserved for a park on University Road,” his lawyer said.

“He was passionate about what is right or wrong… about what Karachi should be like and what it was, and to fight for it.”

“There were three or four of us – Roland deSouza [from Shehri], Rafay Alam from Lahore… who were intimately involved in this, day in and day out. Working with him, you kind of absorbed some of that passion.”

According to Alam, who is also the vice-president for the Pakistan Environmental Law Association, “Ardeshir Cowasjee’s contribution to public-interest litigation can’t be understated. Even in Lahore, he led litigation against the conversion of Doongi Ground into a cinema. “

“He also wrote a column addressed to the Chief Justice of Pakistan requesting him to take suo motu notice of plans to widen the Lahore Canal Road (and cut down thousands of trees). The Chief Justice of Pakistan did take notice, and the Lahore Canal case decision of 2011 is a precedent-setter for public-interest, environment litigation.”

Abdur Rahman

Cowasjee’s impact on public-interest litigation – which now forms the basis for key decisions – will continue to live on and Rahman will be fighting the pending cases in court. “Legally, they strike the name of the deceased but I am going to make sure they continue in his name,” he said.

Shehri-CBE’s Citizen Emeritus award

This March, Shehri – Citizens for a Better Environment gave Cowasjee the Citizen Emeritus award, noting at the time that “although he has never been a formal member, he has been popularly and widely known as our ‘sarbarah’ (leader)” and wrote of his “inimitable ability to shame some into reversing wrongs.”

Roland deSouza said that Shehri and Cowasjee had a lot of common interests. “The environment, generally, and specifically things such as land grabbing, parks, illegal buildings, playgrounds.” The first case that Shehri and Cowasjee worked on together was the Glass Towers case, which brought Shehri’s name into the open.

Cowasjee was not big on seminars but he did come to speak at a few ones Shehri organised, he added. He also gave financial support to the organisation. “There were times when members of Shehri were threatened physically and Cowasjee stepped in and complained to the right people in the government and exposed them,” deSouza recalled. “He always believed that bullies were always cowards and he stood up against chief ministers, governors – just about anyone.”

For deSouza, working with Cowasjee was a “grooming experience”. He recalled that some government officials were unable to talk to him or tackle him because he was so tough with them. There has not been a lot of activity in public-interest litigation in the past five or six years, particularly after the chief justice was deposed in 2007, deSouza admitted.

“As you develop a vaccine to the germ, the disease takes a new form. And since the bad guys are spending 24 hours a day figuring out to be bad – changing laws, etc – the good guys are doing this part-time.”

Sadly, there may not be many patrons of the city who are as devoted as Cowasjee. “He was a man of means and he wasn’t greedy. Most people don’t have the time for public interest – becoming richer than they already are.”


Some cases in the Supreme Court:

1993 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Ors. Vs. Saleem Akhtar Rajput & Others Clifton Broadway 13, FT-4, Clifton

1993 – Multiline Associates vs. Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others Springfield Apartments 18, FT-3, Clifton

1996 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. KBCA & Others Costa Livina; ST-15/3, Clifton

1998 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. Govt. Of Sindh & Others Glass Towers; 2, FT-3, Frere Town Quarters

1998 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. Clifton Cantonment Board (CCB) & Others The Plaza; G-7/9, Clifton

2001 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. Province of Sindh & Others Karachi Play House ST H-1/A, Block 8, Clifton

Cases in the Sindh High Court

1994 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. Karachi Development Authority & Others Park on Plot # ST-2/8, Clifton

1996 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. Govt. Of Sindh & Others Glass Towers; 2, FT-3, Frere Town Quarters

1997 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. Govt. Of Sindh & Others 11 KTC Amenity Plots

1997 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. KBCA & Others JM 459, Jamshed Quarters

1997 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. CCB & Others The Plaza; G-7/ 9, Clifton

1999 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. KBCA & Others Fortune Towers 43-1-A/6, PECHS

2001 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. Province of Sindh & Others Karachi Play House ST H-1/A, Block 8, Clifton

2002 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. Province of Sindh & Others Sind Regulations & Control Ordinance No. VIII of 2002

2003 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. KBCA & Others Business Centre 19-1-A/6, PECHS

2004 – Ardeshir Cowasjee & Others vs. KBCA & Others G/5,28/1,PR-2/I-V-B-103, Preedy Quarters

Source: Advocating Good Governance: The Shehri Story

Correction: This article was corrected to replace the word police with bullies, owing to a transcribing error. 

Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • just_someone
    Nov 27, 2012 - 6:40AM

    There is no doubt that Cowasjee was a champion of protecting the city from illegal land grabs that were legalized by bribes. It reminds me of how once Cowasjee mentioned in his column about 7 years back how one builder calls him every week to ask about his health because he was waiting for Cowasjee to die so that litigation on the builder’s property can be bribed away and he can resume his illegal construction.Recommend

    Nov 27, 2012 - 9:00AM

    a very very admirable man! it’s sad that us as pakistanis could never give the parsi community the respect they deserve. Parsi community played a big part in helping Pakistan after the partition and Mr Cowasjee continued to do so till his last breath. I just hope people of Karachi can give him the respect and love he deserves by remembering him and promoting his work.


  • Wahaj Shariff
    Nov 27, 2012 - 9:01AM

    Cowasjee was a beacon of light in this sea of greed and corruption, besides means it also takes lots of courage and passion, sadly he is too gone. Rest in peace.


  • Mustafa Kamal
    Nov 27, 2012 - 9:15AM

    Brilliant!!! Cowasjee was indeed a blessing for this country.


  • Talha
    Nov 27, 2012 - 9:33AM

    very informative….and lovely illustration Mr.JAMAL KHURSHID!


  • Lobster
    Nov 27, 2012 - 4:31PM

    Some other journalist should take step forward now, the war against builders mafia in Karachi must continue!


  • PPP_Forveer
    Nov 27, 2012 - 5:38PM

    The last of the Mohicans.

    RIP, sweet prince.


  • Uza Syed
    Nov 27, 2012 - 6:59PM

    Good job Saba! You did good to list some of the wonderful public interest cases to illustrate his interest and resolve to stand up for public good. Mr Cowasjee deserves to be remembered for all that he stood for and fought for, we must continue and let his sense of ‘common good’ be his legacy and guiding principles for us. We must unite and become a nation of Cowasjees trying to right all wrongs around here.


  • Zubair
    Nov 27, 2012 - 7:00PM

    Just makes me wonder, why didnt Cowasjee speak out on the encroachment by Bilawal house on the road adjacent to it?

    Or more recently, is there anyone to challenge PSO for creeping up behind their building on main Clifton Road putting up barriers?


  • Uza Syed
    Nov 27, 2012 - 7:37PM

    @Zubair: Why don’t you challenge PSO—that’d be a great start to walk on the path that Cowasjee created and follow him. How about it?


  • joojoo
    Nov 28, 2012 - 2:35AM

    @Zubair ppl like u r the problem, drawing room critics/columnists – why didn’t you speak out against it by filing a PIL?


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