The right to lifeArdeshir Cowasjee - Sunday, February 27, 2011

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FOUR weeks ago this column opened up: “This country, having developed double standards into a fine art for almost 64 years, has gradually realised that hypocrisy wastes time.

“After doing wrong, we spent ages attempting to conceal it, pretending we were genuinely interested in human welfare and compliance with law. We have now decided to throw caution to the winds, and do whatever we want, no matter who is watching. After all, what can anyone do about it?”

It erred — the Sindh Law Minister, Ayaz Soomro, has set the record straight. Apparently, somewhere along the line shame does crop up. There are those who realise that they are doing wrong, and clumsily attempt to put a favourable spin on their deeds to show that they are acting in the public interest: so they resort to hypocrisy.

Last week, Soomro presented an ironic piece of legislation in the provincial assembly entitled `The Sindh Protection and Prohibition [sic.] of Amenity Plots Bill 2009`, of which the following sections are pivotal:

Section 1(2): It shall come into force at once and shall be deemed to have taken effect on and from 2nd day of May, 1994.

Section 3: Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being force or any judgment, order or decree of a court, no amenity plot shall be converted to or utilised for any purpose, but subject to the provisions of section 4 of this act.

Section 4: Whenever, if the provincial assembly passes a resolution to the effect that an amenity plot may be converted to or utilised for any other purpose, government shall, after receiving the resolution passed by the assembly, process the matter in the prescribed manner.

Section 5: The provisions of the act shall have overriding effect, notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force.

While this duplicitous bill pretends, in Section 3, to protect and prohibit the conversion or utilisation of amenity plots for any other purpose, it actually does the diametrically opposite: in Section 4, it gives the 168 `town planners` elected to the Sindh Assembly unfettered powers to arbitrarily transform any amenity plot to a different land use without giving any justification. Furthermore, under Section 4 this proposed law overrides any other existing law, and under Section 1(2) takes effect from May 2, 1994.

Why 1994? Well, it was then that an amendment was made to the KDA Order 1957 that actually did proscribe the misuse and conversion of amenity plots. Thus, the government now wants to `regularise` (we must remember the infamous 2002 `regularisation of illegal buildings` ordinance that has congested our city with hazardous residential and commercial high-rises) the numerous illegal conversions and encroachments on amenity spaces that have taken place over the past 17 years, especially the ones carried out during the past five years by the various political criminal elements aligned with the coalition parties of Sindh.

Attempts to officially undermine the KDA Order 1957`s protection of amenity spaces came in 1998, when the then Sindh governor, Lt-Gen Moinuddin Haider, promulgated an ordinance that stated: “Provided that any amenity plot vesting in the Karachi Transport Corporation [KTC], with prior approval of government, be converted to or utilised for any other purpose.” Citizens and bus users from all over Karachi, spearheaded by the NGO Shehri, protested. Then Chief Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed of the Sindh High Court came to the assistance of the people and stopped the government`s auction of 11 KTC bus depots.

This time, an `environmental NRO` has been floated in order to defeat the Feb 4, 2011 Supreme Court directive for Karachi`s City Government (CDGK) to demolish, within 30 days, all encroachments and illegal buildings (including government and political party offices) in Karachi`s public parks and amenity spaces.

The superior courts in Pakistan have jealously guarded the citizens` constitutionally-protected fundamental “right to life” under Article 9, which includes the right to a clean and healthy environment. How can such an environment be established if amenity-function spaces are to be gobbled up for pelf? The level of crime and violence in urban areas of Pakistan is escalating owing, in no small measure, to the adverse psychological and social pressures affecting the population, especially the poor. More recreation opportunities with parks, playgrounds, green belts and open spaces would go a long way to addressing these issues.

Do our legislators, who have sworn an oath to safeguard the constitution as well as the interests of their constituents, realise that all urban planning schemes of Karachi were carried out by the British before 1947 (population 0.4 million) or by the KDA before 1980 (population five million)? Today, city residents exceed 18 million (and counting). So Karachi needs many more amenity plots to cater to the recreational, sports, health, education, municipal, utility and infrastructure needs of its citizenry. We do not need laws that facilitate land-grabbers and corrupt politicians intent on swallowing up already inadequate master-plan public land and amenity spaces.

The people ask: where will our children play? Where will our schools and hospitals be established? Where will we bury our dead? Where will we treat our water and sewage? Where will we park our buses? Where will our families relax? Where will we worship?

Author-journalist George Orwell held that political prose was formed “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He believed that the writing of politicians was intended to hide the truth rather than express it, and the language used was necessarily vague or meaningless. But politicians sometimes inadvertently reveal their intentions, while trying to conceal them. The title of the amazing Sindh Bill No 7 of 2009 says it all: The Prohibition of Amenity Plots!

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