DAWN - Opinion; July 19, 2008

Published July 19, 2008

Densification of Karachi

By Arif Hasan

I GATHER from press reports, emails and visits from fellow architects that the Government of Sindh has decided to get the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) to revise its building by-laws and zoning regulations to increase floor area ratios all over the city and in the business and commercial districts in particular.

A report in the press also mentions that the chief minister even favours the construction of 100-storey buildings in the metropolis.

In layman’s language, the floor area ratio (FAR) lays down the area one can construct on a plot of land. For example, if the FAR is 1:6 then on 1,000 square yards one can construct six times the plot area (or 6,000 square yards) and the building can be any number of storeys unless there is a height restriction under the by-laws.

The reason being given for increasing the FAR is that it will make investment in building and real estate more attractive. It is hoped that this step will also attract foreign investment and reverse the decline in the real estate and construction business. However, it has to be understood that the real reason for this decline has less to do with a low-density FAR and more to do with political uncertainty, a looming economic crisis, lucrative opportunities in the UAE for real estate investments, and the graft, corruption and complicated and time-consuming procedures involved in getting building approvals.

Increasing the FAR means the increasing of densities. It can be argued that Karachi is a low-density sprawl as compared to other mega cities, except for certain areas of Gulistan-i-Jauhar, Lyari Town and parts of Liaquatabad. The latter two have high densities in complete violation of building by-laws and zoning regulations. It is also true that transport systems and utilities are relatively expensive to operate and difficult to manage in large, low-density decentralised cities, especially huge ones like Karachi. Also, transport systems in such cities are less likely to be efficient as compared to those in high-density centralised cities.

An increase in density means an increase in the number of persons living or working per unit of area (which in our case is calculated per acre). This increase requires a corresponding increase in infrastructure in terms of water, sewage and electricity. It can be argued that this can be augmented over time as has been done in many other cities of the world.

However, it is difficult to understand how we will manage this given the financial and managerial constraints faced by our planning and implementation agencies, and the absence of political will and a consensus between the different actors in our urban drama on overcoming these constraints.

An increase in density means an increase in vehicular and pedestrian traffic and requires additional road space and improved transport systems. The question therefore is how much more traffic (if any at all) can the existing road network in the areas which the KBCA wishes to densify accommodate before clogging them up completely? Also, can the existing transport system take care of the additional number of people that will move in and out of the densified areas or will they remain stranded on the roads for hours?

If available data is to be believed, and there is no reason why it should not be, Karachi’s central business district (CBD) at present requires transport systems that can cater to at least 20,000 passengers per hour. This can only be provided by segregated light rail and metro or through a rapid transit system of buses. Karachi’s transport system in the CBD currently caters to no more than 3,000 to 4,000 persons per hour and is under increasing pressure. Therefore, increasing the FAR has to be accompanied by the building of high-capacity mass transit systems in the transport sector and improved traffic management. The provision of appropriate transport systems to cater to high densities will require at least a decade to plan and complete after decisions regarding them are taken.

Normally questions related to densification and the nature of the linkages it requires with transport and utilities are determined by an urban design exercise which takes place as part of the structure or development plan for a city. Such an exercise is carried out separately for different areas.

For Karachi’s commercial districts this would require at least a year of work (after the terms of reference have been developed and consultants appointed), another six months of analysis and stakeholder consultation before by-laws can be framed and may be another few months before they become law. From the look of things, this process will not be followed and ad hoc decisions will be taken as they have been taken in the past.

It is therefore suggested that the increase in the FAR which the politicians are seeking should be determined (if an urban design exercise is not politically possible) by the number of vehicles an area can accommodate and the existing transport facilities in that area. These are not difficult to calculate and the city government has very competent planners and technocrats who are capable of doing this and more.

Since by-laws are being revised for the business districts as well, it is essential that at least 30 per cent or even more of all built-up area should be reserved for residential accommodation, for two reasons. One, it will reduce the use of cars and public transport if persons working in the area also live there. And two, the area will not die at night, as it does today, and in the process expensive infrastructure and utilities will be fully utilised.

Cities that have grown without proper urban design exercises or without rational FAR controls during their periods of economic growth and investment, like Bangkok and Manila in the ’80s and ’90s, have immense traffic- and transport-related problems which even mass transit systems and the building of scores of kilometres of expensive expressways and signal-free roads have not been able to overcome. Karachi must not be allowed to suffer such a fate. We still have time.


Through the prism of art

By F.S. Aijazuddin

THE recent interest in the work of Pakistani artists with an attendant increase in prices is more than a step in the right direction. It is a leap of faith.

Why, some may ask, should a sale abroad of paintings by Pakistani artists have any relevance here other than to the artists themselves — at least to those of them who are still alive?

Open any newspaper, switch to any TV news channel. Adversities and traumas, crises and shortages bark and snarl and bark at you. Prices have become string-less kites at Basant, flying higher and higher, ostensibly out of control. Food is in short supply and may well be rationed, energy is more precious than water and is being rationed.

We have two chief justices of the Supreme Court, sitting on opposite sides of the judicial scales. Unions long dormant have begun to agitate. Those who exercise power are not in government, and those who are in government appear to be powerless.

Fata is fast becoming a battleground in which we are both the Pandavas and the Kauravas in a Kurukhsetra being fought on home ground. We are a country that seems to have declared war on itself.

Why therefore should art have any relevance?

The answer lies in a response made during the Second World War by Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery in London. He organised a series of Lunchtime Concerts, at which he invited distinguished performers — violinists, cellists, flutists — to come and play during the lunch hour in the National Gallery’s Rotunda every working day. Any member of the public who wanted to hear them was welcome, and many brought their packed lunches of wartime rations with them to eat while listening to the music.

When asked why he persisted when London was being inundated with V1 and V2 bombs and all too frequent air raids, Clark replied: “Because I want to remind people that this is the civilisation which we are fighting to protect.”

In as many words, the success of our Pakistani artists is significant because they represent the composite of all those values — Islamic, secular, ethnic, regional, individual — that we are struggling to defend. To lose that battle is to lose ourselves.

If one looks back, as one should do if one is to determine a path for the future, one can identify the milestones that have guided us to this stage of our development. To take the visual arts alone, A.R. Chughtai, Ustad Allah Buksh, Shakir Ali, Sadequain, Guljee and Colin David each represented an aspect of our social identity. A writer like Bapsi Sidhwa is not a Parsi writer but a Pakistani writer who happens to be a Parsi. Guljee was an Ismaili, Colin David a Christian, but all were Pakistanis nonetheless.

An ideal showcase for our national artistic talent is of course the National Gallery, recently constructed in Islamabad. At the moment, in addition to its rather paltry permanent collection of paintings, it has staged an exhibition of the works of three prominent Pakistani painters — Sheikh Ahmed, his wife but an artist in her own right Anna Molka Ahmed, and Miss Naseem Qazi. The output of their lifetimes is on display in three commodious galleries, and even then the building has wall space to spare for other works.

Whatever may have been the merits and demerits of their work, each of them had a seminal influence on our modern generations for all three were revered (and in Anna Molka Ahmed’s case feared) teachers of art. Each was responsible for moulding the minds of those who are achieving recognition today.

Had they been alive, they might have been envious of the sort of prices modern Pakistani painters can command, and that too in foreign exchange (which, it seems after the run on our reserves, is the next commodity to be rationed). Often though these are reflective of other factors other than talent or rarity. For example, even before Guljee’s murderers had been caught, collectors in Hong Kong had begun sourcing his paintings in a macabre perversion of the law of limited supply and increasing demand. Today we are all standing too close to issues that buffet us in our daily lives to take a detached view of where we are and where we should be going. It is becoming increasingly important for us to take pride in our past if we are to have any faith in the future.

To those who regard our nation as a stricken Titanic, one would need to remind them (and ourselves) that there were survivors even on that vessel. It is not for nothing that children were the first to be put into lifeboats.

The recent general elections have brought into the National Assembly persons who, whether many of us accept it or not, or even whether they themselves accept it or not, are saddled with the responsibility of governance. It is an authority kings are born into, presidents achieve, and our elected representatives have thrust upon them.

If this National Assembly should by any happenstance last its full term like its predecessor did (not because that previous assembly did anything but precisely because it did nothing), then the only chance of having a fresh infusion of ideas may be through the forthcoming elections to the Senate.

When considering nominations, would any of the political leaders who will be distributing electoral boons consider broadening the list to include persons of intellectual stature and not only simply political weight?

Most bicameral bodies foresee such a balance. The House of Lords in the UK is one example, the Rajya Sabha in New Delhi another. Among the nominated members of the Rajya Sabha are film actors like Hema Malini, avant-garde director Shyam Benegal and Dr Kapila Vatsyayan (an accomplished Bharat Natyam dancer, scholar and retired ICS officer).

Many who are concerned with the future of those generations that will succeed us here in Pakistan pray for sanity and maturity at the highest levels of governance. It should not be impossible for those holding the prism of governance to convert the rainbow spectrum of our individual identity and diversity back into a single pure light of national unity.


The women of Sindh

By Bina Shah

SHAH Abdul Latif Bhitai, the famous Sufi poet of Sindh, is known to every Sindhi and nearly every Pakistani as the author of the Risalo, that magnificent collection of epic poetry encompassing the folk tales of Sindh. With the magic of an alchemist, he elevates the simple stories into beautiful parables of the Sufi’s yearning to put an end to the separation between himself and God.

Shah Abdul Latif uses the metaphor of the love between a man and a woman to make a timeless statement about the relationship between man and God — that death is the end of that separation, and should be looked forward to with longing, the way lovers look forward to being reunited after a long period of being kept apart by circumstances, fate and the cruel designs of other men.

In my research for an upcoming project, I learned that the women of Shah Abdul Latif’s poetry are known as the Seven Queens, heroines of Sindhi folklore who have been given the status of royalty in the Risalo. The Seven Queens were celebrated throughout Sindh for their positive qualities: their honesty, integrity, piety and loyalty. They were also valued for their bravery and their willingness to risk their lives in the name of love.

Perhaps what Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai saw in his tales of these women was an idealised view of womanhood, but the truth remains that the Seven Queens inspired women all over Sindh to have the courage to choose love and freedom over tyranny and oppression. The lines from the Risalo describing their trials are sung at Sufi shrines all over Sindh, and especially at the urs of Shah Abdul Latif every year at Bhit Shah; in these difficult days, people need to remember their heroes and heroines more than ever.

Ironically, in Sindh today we see women acting with the same courage and integrity as Shah Abdul Latif’s Seven Queens but they suffer untold punishment for choosing to live their lives in this manner. If a woman chooses to marry of her own free will, her family may disown her, threaten her and her husband, have her kidnapped, and even murder her for daring to go against the wishes of the family.

It remains puzzling that while we celebrate the actions of Marvi, Sassi, Momal, Leela, Sohni and the other women of the Risalo, the real women of Sindh are made to pay the ultimate price for the same actions. We hold in high esteem fictional women and pay lip service to their tales of tragic romance but we enact upon our own sisters and daughters a worse kind of tragedy, all in the name of an honour that is in actual fact a euphemism for the most despicable kind of male chauvinism I have ever seen.

But the women of Sindh are strong and resilient. And they have discovered that while they may not be encouraged to follow their dreams of love and happiness, their true strength lies in a different direction: education. The women that we recognise in Sindh today are those who have made huge strides in the world of academics, and serve as role models to all the Sindhi girls who want to take control of their own destiny.

Benazir Bhutto, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, is the name at the top of the list but there are others who we can find as examples. Mehtab Rashdi, Hamida Khuhro and Anita Ghulam Ali are some of the most educated Sindhi women in Pakistan today, and with their years of hard work and dedication each has made an invaluable contribution to the cause of the liberation of Sindhi women everywhere.

Even at a more basic level, any time a Sindhi girl makes it to school, college or university anywhere is a cause for celebration. The success of a marriage in our society is something vastly dependent on the wills of many people but education is the one thing that a woman can take with her no matter where she goes.

There is a new wave of Sindhi women emerging that we have also reason to celebrate: those who have entered the field of politics. Conservative as most Sindhi families are, the February 2008 elections saw women from Sindhi families being elected to the provincial legislature, a sea change that will inspire a whole generation of Sindhi girls to take a more active role in the political system of this country. I would like to share with you a quote from a letter I received from one of my male readers:

“I see some hope in women legislators in the Sindh Assembly — like Sassi Palejo, Shazia Marri, and Humera Alwani. I am praying for their success … If Sindhi men are busy waxing their moustaches, the Sindhi women legislators are there to take up the mantle. Listen to them, they will provide the way forward.”

This letter struck me with its insight and its hopes for the future; and most of all for the gentleman’s willingness to lay his trust and faith in women. It’s been three hundred years since Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit wrote his Risalo but it looks like we’re still trapped in our old ways, still singing praises for the Seven Queens while clamping down on the hopes and dreams of our sisters and daughters.

But for those of you who look forward to the day when things will get better for the women of Sindh, look around you, I say: the Seven Queens, in their modern incarnations, are already here.

The writer is a novelist.




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