What we citizens need to do - Ardeshir Cowasjee - October 17, 2010

Source : www.dawn.com

FOR decades, some of us scribblers have been writing about the swift degradation of our cities — particularly Karachi and Lahore — due to the shenanigans of our political, military and other ruling classes, their preoccupation with money-making and land grabbing, and their propensity to change and amend laws to facilitate their aims and ambitions.

As said Milton Friedman, economist and winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize, “The government solution to any problem is usually at least as bad as the problem.” So, the government being the antagonist, we city dwellers have agitated, individually and in groups, and we have more than frequently petitioned the courts.

The two largest cities, Karachi and Lahore, showcase cities so to speak, have both suffered massive transformations and would be unrecognisable to a former resident who had not visited either since, say, the 1970s. (Islamabad is occupied mainly by transient beings totally preoccupied with themselves so protests are far and few between, although the Centaurus skyscraper and Zero Point interchange drew some public indignation).

Both are a mess — to put it mildly. The courts have on occasion supported the citizens, but then all they can do is order. They cannot enforce. We must remember US President Andrew Jackson`s 1832 riposte to a ruling given by his chief justice, John Marshall: “Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

The executive too often succeeds in blocking judicial orders and courts too often pussyfoot around the issue and avoid firm action. We are seeing this right now in the matter of the NRO. Procrastination is the order of the day on both sides, each pleading the necessity of not destabilising an already ridiculously destabilised government and nation. The matter it seems will linger on, boring us silly, for the entire life of this government, however long or short it may be (right now all signs are that it is going nowhere in a hurry).

But occasionally things do happen that show that the citizens can make a difference in a positive manner (the famed lawyers` movement has evolved into a farcical and dangerous banding of groups of hooligans who trample on the laws they are paid to uphold, so that can now be discounted).

Karachi has just seen a triumph of sorts. In 2003, the City District Government Karachi (CDGK), using its own warped reasoning to generate funds, revamped the `commercialisation of roads` policy, added nine roads in residential areas to the six previously designated as commercial and over the next few years gradually included 14 additional roads to their list. Amongst these was Khayaban-i-Saadi, upon which is situated one of the most prestigious schools of the country, the Karachi Grammar School (KGS).

In mid-September this year, the Sindh Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) invited the general public to submit comments and objections to an Environmental Impact Assessment report on a 22-storey office complex to be constructed on a plot (F-8/5) in Clifton.

This monstrosity was to be created two plots away from his junior school, so in order to protect the young ones in his charge, Dr Graham Platts, the KGS principal, used the powers at his disposal to galvanise the parents to protest against the security risk to students, the anticipated increase in already congested traffic, even more chaotic parking and augmented pollution that would change the nature of the residential locality. (As Winston Churchill once observed “Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which prime ministers have never yet been invested”.)

Over the last two years, schools all over the country have become the target of terrorists and bombers. Local police have been surveying such premises and advising on the strengthening of security measures as the government is hard pressed to provide protection to individual institutions. So, apart from the environmental issues, the school administration and the parents had an added justification for their protests.

On a hot October afternoon, parents, local inhabitants and concerned citizens and representatives of NGOs (some 500 gathered) marched in protest; angry letters were written to the press and city administration; newspapers and TV talk-shows analysed the problems; detailed submissions and signature campaigns were sent to Sepa.

Now Khayaban-i-Saadi and Khayaban-i-Roomi have numerous buildings already considered as security threats — Bilawal House, PPP-Z party headquarters and Karachi presidential residence, the Ismaili jamaatkhana and the KGS. (These two roads touch each other.)

On Oct 14, a public hearing was held at a local hotel. Over 400 irate citizens carrying banners (`Don`t be mean, Go Green!`) and placards exhibited true determination and conveyed the signal to Sepa that they would not tolerate the arbitrary `commercialisation` of the school surroundings and the environmental degradation and security hazards that would result.

They reminded the authorities that for the same reasons the CDGK had recently cancelled the `commercialisation` of a plot near the jamaatkhana in Clifton, and that the police had also confirmed that the densification of the area would exaggerate the already existing security risk to the locality.

Much to the amusement (and even shock) of those gathered the builder himself accepted that the commercialisation of these roads undertaken by the CDGK had not been undertaken in accordance with the law. The efforts of the citizens did not fall on deaf ears. After the public hearing the director general of Sepa announced that he was recommending that the commercialisation of these two roads be withdrawn.

The latest news to emerge is that a consensus has been arrived at, based on the public hearing, that the commercialisation of these roads should be cancelled and they should revert to their original status. So, congratulations to the school and to the concerned citizens who stood their ground. May we witness many more such happenings!


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