Countries as real-estate deals

Some years ago, someone enjoying the status of holy cow, had a vision, which can be anything one wants to make of it. In ancient times, only prophets and seers had visions towards guiding people onto the right path. Later, visions came to schizophrenics, autocrats and corporations. The recent ‘visionary’ wanted to turn Karachi into a ‘world-class city’.
Now what is a ‘world-class city’? Different people view ‘world-class’ differently. To some it means aesthetic qualities and uniqueness, that can’t be duplicated elsewhere – places like Prague, Venice, Barcelona, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Istanbul and others that don’t ruin things by stretching beyond their infrastructural capacity. They blossomed from the cultural input of many generations. But that’s not the vision of the profit-oriented; their idea is unabashed, in-your-face ostentation – places like glittering, tourist-attracting Bangkok, and the playground of our politicians, Dubai. Invisibility reigns over the grinding poverty of millions toiling for the upkeep of the rich, complete with inhuman living conditions and the trafficking of flesh, and the relentless inflow of rural migrants in desperate search of jobs, shelter and survival.
The new lopsided mantra became: if there’s no space to grow horizontally, there’s plenty to grow vertically, 30, 40, 50 stories or more. In 2008, it was formalized into the fashionably-termed “high-density development” of Karachi, without so much as a by-your-leave of the city’s multimillion residents. The political decision-makers even ignored officialdom’s own professionals about the impossible — unless a heavy price was undemocratically paid by an unserved majority.
The object of maximizing residential and office space is not achieved just by accommodating them far above the ground. The corresponding infrastructure and services required – water, electricity, gas, sewerage, transport, roads, parking (forget the parks) — remain or start at ground or underground level. For additional huge numbers of population, the capacity was limited or already used up. The only way for the privileged living or working in the sky was by further depriving others. It was simply not humanly or environmentally possible to serve all.
Whose so-called ‘vision’ was this high-density scheme? The architects were too polite to mention it, but past press cuttings revealed that a high-powered meeting was attended by, among others, Governor Ishrat-ul-Abad, Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, Secretary General to President Salman Faruqi, Finance Minister Murad Ali Shah, Minister for Local Government Agha Siraj Durrani, none of them city-planning professionals. It was chaired by Zardari, whose erratic brainwave it was – having as much interest in real estate as Malik Riaz does, if in different ways.
SHEHRI, the NGO focusing on housing, city planning and development, our architectural heritage, civic matters related to urbanites’ lives irrespective of socio-economic status, has constantly been raising its voice about irresponsible and uncontrolled development. It invariably displaces the poor, unwarranted privileges being awarded to a minority, leaving have-nots degenerating to a dog-eat-dog lifestyle.
Elected governments began to increasingly emphasize privatization. First, it was the privatization of state-enterprises including profitable ones for which there was no justification to flog. Then it was for anything and everything, not just urban. The unspoken impetus came in 1995 when the secret private World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement was signed by most governments of the world, most of which, including the elected representatives of the US and Pakistan, did not read or know what they had signed. Even the international media did not learn of its contents until too late.
The WTO was not just about so-called ‘free’ trade which industrialized countries already dominated. It was about total globalization, deemed by the American corporates who created it, as the ultimate virtue — the freedom for outsiders to invest in just anything anywhere in the world including agriculture. With Pakistan’s invitation to foreign investors into corporate agriculture instead of land reform and redistribution to peasants, large-scale land-grabbing deals were struck in Baluchistan and Punjab. The only reason they’ve failed to reach fruition yet is because of widespread violence and conflict. But the risk remains.
Attention turned to urban investment in essential public services such as utilities, communications, water, municipal services, roads and urban development, hitherto the sole democratic duty and responsibility of government. The central principle of the WTO is that global commercial interests should supersede all other interests including fundamental human and environmental rights. Having local ‘fronts’ acting on their behalf became easier. To this end, all “impediments to free trade” had to be removed – such as labour rights, environmental protection, consumer rights, local culture, social justice, removal of domestic regulatory mechanisms, and if need be, changes in country constitutions to suit WTO.
While SHEHRI’s civil society membership is well-armed with architects, engineers and planners, the government simply shrugs them off. Its recent call was akin to desperation before complete takeover of governance by private interests. Lately, higher-rises have been cropping up in Karachi in places where services are already stretched. But the buzzword of privatization takes precedence, as illustrated by Architects Roland D’Souza and Arif Belgaumi, revealing the inner workings of Karachi’s murky real estate activities. The same trends occur in Lahore, Islamabad and elsewhere.
1997 welcomed an Environmental Protection Act (EPA). What most people don’t know, says D’Souza, is that it also protects the built environment. An Environmental Impact Assessment is in fact critical for increased densification, high rises, change of land-use projects, as are public hearings and setting up of expert committees. Just adding more buildings and floors for homes and offices don’t resolve accommodation needs. They have to be accompanied by the entire package of supporting infrastructure and services. Along came the Karachi Building and Town Planning Regulations 2002, but by then, opined D’Souza, planning and control had come to an end; there was no concern whatsoever about infrastructure.
The High Density Development Board 2010, warns D’Souza, is unmindful of ground realities, ignoring lack of utilities and services, mass transport and unmanageable traffic congestion, and most damningly of all, planning for the 5% upper income at the expense of the 95% low income. To safeguard everyone’s interest, MQM and PPP appointees were made co-chairmen. The Rules and Procedures 2011 that followed violated all urban planning principles – unlimited size plot amalgamation was allowed, height-related setbacks were removed and plot-ratios increased. Residential plots could be commercialized without public objections procedure. Since 2010, amenity (park) lands have been grabbed, and protected heritage structures ranging from 900 to 2,500 years old, including the beautiful Jehangir Kothari Promenade, carefully preserved for so long, have been encroached upon and partly damaged.
When, in the larger public interest, the architects presented themselves uninvited, the government not only “welcomed” them, they were clever and got both free advice and an illusion of receiving their approval. Consequently, architect Belgaumi harbours no misunderstandings about government behaving responsibly voluntarily. “The Architects Committee only provides unwarranted legitimacy to the actions of the Board,” he states, “The Sindh High Density Development Board is not in the best interests of Karachi and other cities of Sindh. It serves no purpose but to facilitate and further the real estate interests of select parties. It concentrates too much discretionary power without oversight in the hands of a few selected individuals. …. It largely excludes the planning and architectural communities. It does not address the needs of the majority of Karachiites. It will create huge infrastructure and environmental problems for all urban areas. It provides little or no recourse for the public. …. recognize the vested intent of the legislation must be recognised.”
Besides, he affirms, “all this will never yield a ‘world class’ city.”

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.

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