Land-grab commercialisation epidemic - Ardeshir Cowasjee - December 26, 2010

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THE planning, allotment and occupation of most urban-development schemes in the centre of major cities in Pakistan, including areas/quarters existing pre-1947, has been progressive over the past six decades, never flagging.

Our cities are inundated with houses, apartment buildings, factories, commercial plazas and shopping areas due in part to the unchecked increase in population (approximately 500 per cent over 63 years) and partly to rural-urban migration (around 700 per cent urban population increase). Some cities have streets `paved with gold`: Karachi has exploded from 0.4 to 18 million.

Under these congested overdeveloped circumstances, what is a grabby crafty politician, bureaucrat or developer (who realises that wealth depends on land/property) to do? He cannot use his political influence to acquire valuable virgin land in the urban centres: it has already been given away by the government.

But then, there are still vast open spaces available in overcrowded precincts — amenity and public-use plots, many yet undeveloped owing to a paucity of resources, misplaced priorities of government agencies, or kept for future use such as spaces for parks, playgrounds, schools, hospitals, government buildings, cemeteries, beach promenades, theatres, transportation (railway, airports, bus depots), utility/municipal systems (water-supply, sewage-treatment, solid-waste disposal) and green buffer zones.

So he utilises his cunning, political connections and clout (money shouts!) and manages the allotment of slices of such amenity spaces, or persuades an agency (CAA, Railway, Post Office, etc) to lease a `surplus` plot for commercial use, or invades the area — starting with the construction of a small mosque. In these ventures, he finds willing accomplices in the officials whose statutory duty it is to protect the public lands.

Over the years, concerned citizens and community groups have rallied around to fight marauders, and many have succeeded, sometimes with the help of the superior courts. Examples are Doongi Ground in Lahore, Fatima Jinnah Park in Islamabad, Webb (Makro) Playground in Karachi (unfortunately still in limbo), and the 11 Karachi Transport and 15 Sindh Road Transport bus depots all over the province.

Some efforts to save amenity spaces have so far failed — NLC-Ensha`s Financial Towers in Karachi`s City Station Marshalling Yard, Sheikh Zayed`s Mubarak Centre on a Punjab Road Transport bus depot in Lahore, housing encroachments on parks in Karachi (North Nazimabad, Gulshan-i-Iqbal, Korangi, etc, and on sewage-treatment land in Gutter Baghicha and Mahmoodabad). The press recently carried satellite images of the capture of numerous amenity spaces in Baldia and Surjani over the past year.

A different type of worrying countrywide land-use change is the establishment of office, bank and educational buildings on factory plots. In Karachi, this is escalating in SITE, Korangi and Federal `B` industrial areas: Meezan Bank head office, Generation School`s new branch, Lucky-One commercial-cum-residential project and others are being built in the middle of the pollution and chaos of manufacturing.

There seems to be scant concern for the health and welfare of office staff or schoolchildren, or the traffic congestion that will result, or the heightened stress on utilities/infrastructure. All national building regulations, including Karachi Building Control Authority Regulation 2002 section No18-4.2.7, prohibits the conversion of factory plots to residential or commercial use, except CNG/petrol stations. Have interested mafia `persuaded` the various authorities to amend this law?

One partial success story is Karachi`s `Costa Livina` in Bagh-e-Ibn-e-Qasim, Clifton. In 1976, Marvi Investments contrived to have a one-acre `commercial plot` for a revolving restaurant carved out at the sea-front of the park. The KDA allotment letter was issued in 1990, and five weeks later it was sold to Pearl Builders. Within two months, a 16-floor apartment building with a revolving restaurant at the top had been approved by the KBCA. The government bent over backwards for well-connected Pearl Builders (owned by a present member of the Sindh government).

The citizens challenged the commercial apartments in the park, and the petition was eventually decided in a 1999 landmark judgment of the Supreme Court which considerably broadened the concept of locus standi in public-interest issues, removed contradictions in a previous SC judgment, found Pearl Builders culpable of “manipulation contrary to law”, and directed them to submit a new plan for the revolving restaurant only; after approval, the existing structure (apart from the portion that could be used in the revolving restaurant) was to be demolished; if the builder failed to submit a plan within 60 days, the illegal structure was to be demolished.The years passed with Pearl Builders trying to save their five-storey skeleton, submitting plans for low-height buildings, with children`s play-lands and amenity spaces and a revolving restaurant on top. The rejection of various plans by the authority and other high-rise committees (who rightly felt that only a tall tower would give a panoramic view), interspersed with some `cosmetic` demolition actions, prompted the builder to file numerous appeals in the high court and obtain a series of interim stay-orders.

Amazingly, in 2003, after promulgation of the infamous Regularisation Ordinance 2002, the KBCA `regularised` the remaining structure (much of it as `amenity space`). The builder and KBCA waited for better times, which now seem to have arrived.

In May 2010, the KBCA formed a Standing Committee for Building Regulations, and earlier this month, defined its first assignment: to frame regulations for the `Costa Livina` revolving restaurant, with a provision for a cinema-hall/theatre (based on the Senate Standing Culture Committee`s recommendation for this provision in “all new shopping plazas and housing societies”). This new twist is being sneaked in to benefit the builder, although a revolving restaurant in a park is neither a shopping plaza nor a housing society.

Time will show what the committee, which includes representatives of professional architectural and engineering bodies, comes out with to protect the public interest in the proper utilisation of a public park.

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