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The criminals amongst us

October 16, 2005


AT last, at long last, it has happened. For over two decades a few civic-minded citizens of this country have warned, on countless occasions, the authorities concerned and the people that in natural calamities such as earthquakes the old adage holds true — it is buildings rather than nature that are responsible for death on a large scale.

And so it has proved, here in Pakistan, in the stricken areas of the north. It is the buildings, the concrete structures, haphazardly put together in the deprived and neglected areas where poverty has been purposefully allowed to reign, which have killed thousands of adults and children, thousands more than were taken away by the actual earthquake. Nature is only partly to blame for the loss of life, limb, and wherewithal.

But what happened in Islamabad in the case of the Margalla Towers tragedy is criminal and it must be treated as such. Nature played little part in the fall of this building ; the murder and maiming of the unfortunates who were in the tower when it fell falls squarely and fairly on the shoulders of the designers, the builders, and the authorities which connived with them. They should all be hanged, drawn and quartered.

There is no excuse for what has happened in Islamabad, no excuse at all for the deaths and destruction and the consequent suffering caused to many families. That a ‘completion certificate’ was not issued by the Capital Development Authority is indicative of complicity. Those who bought the flats in the Tower could not have known that they were investing in potential death — though now with hindsight, knowing their compatriots, perhaps they should have done some checking. However, what’s done is done and there is no undoing.

Margalla Towers is a final warning to all in Pakistan, in every city and town, who are building their own homes or buying houses and flats already built, and a final warning to the authorities who control their building affairs. If this warning is ignored, let further tragedy be on all our heads — from the president of Pakistan all the way downwards.

On October 14, dateline Islamabad, six days after the quake, a headline in the national press informed us that ‘Supreme Court stops construction work on Chalets Housing Scheme.’ This scheme is located a few kilometres from the boundary of the Margalla Hills National Park and the NWFP. The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, had, on October 12, taken suo motu action against the construction of these chalets, ordered the registration of a petition, and ordered all the concerned authorities to appear before the court the next day.

There was no dithering, no delay. After hearing the chalets’ counsel, the CJP directed Attorney-General Makhdoom Ali Khan “to take up the issue with the authorities concerned and make rules and regulations, maybe through an ordinance . . . . It is a serious matter . .”. The attorney general, on his part, assured the Bench that their orders would be complied with in letter and spirit.

Not surprisingly, the Environmental Protection Agency had issued a no objection certificate, after having initially declined to do so. They were ‘got at’, obviously. The chief justice also remarked that he was rather displeased to know that the DG, environment was a mechanical engineer by profession and thus hardly an environmental specialist. The Bench took note of another housing scheme, Pir Sohawa Valley Villas, and sent for its records.

What we need in Karachi, where under similar circumstances as last Saturday’s, the death and destruction would outdo the northern areas by at least 20-fold, is a strong high court to now take suo motu action against the majority of the constructions built and semi-built in this city.

The chief justice should be as surprised as was the CJP to learn that the man who controls all the buildings of Karachi, all the dangerous high and low towers, completed or not completed, the Chief Controller of Buildings (CCOB) of the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA), is not even a mechanical nor civil nor electrical engineer, but a former officer of a cavalry regiment of the Pakistan Army.

But the chief justice of Sindh and his brother judges may here have a problem as the controller of our buildings is much beholden to the party in power in Sindh, the coalition partner in President General Pervez Musharraf’s government. The dangers posed to Karachi are manifold and to rectify them will take some doing under the present circumstances.

There are literally hundreds of cases involving irregular unlawful buildings before the Sindh High Court, which involve the KBCA in multiple irregularities and violations of the building and other laws. Finally, in September 2004, the CJ of the SHC, with full understanding of the problems faced by Karachi and its citizens on the building front, passed an order in the matter of HCA 163/04, in which he stated: “In the circumstances we dismiss these appeals and send a copy of the order along with that of the learned single judge to the Provincial Ombudsman to look into the question of the extensive maladministration prevailing in the Respondent No.1 [KBCA].”

The ombudsman has held numerous meetings with various citizens and NGOs and in February this year one NGO submitted to him a comprehensive 31-page report detailing the factual maladministration under which the KBCA operates. The ombudsman continues to sit on the matter, and the KBCA continues on in its old ways. The ombudsman, as with the CCOB, is obligated to the coalition party which now has full control of Karachi, and almost of the entire province, courtesy the PML-Q, and therefore to the governor. We, the citizens, have little recourse.

We could perhaps take solace, were we able to believe all we read, from a news item in the Metropolitan section of this newspaper yesterday under the headline “No major earthquake likely to hit Karachi.” Our ‘experts’ are of the opinion that “while the city’s proximity to the meeting point of at least three of the world’s major plates adds to its vulnerability to earthquakes” in the foreseeable future we will be hit by no major tremors.

The one ‘expert’ named is the director-general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, Dr Qamaruzzaman Chaudhry. Is the good doctor a seismologist, or is he a geologist? There is a vast difference in the two qualifications when it comes to earthquake predictions. A seismologist is the equivalent of a heart specialist as opposed to a general practitioner.

More believable ‘experts’ are those quoted on the same page in the same newspaper : “Most buildings may not withstand tremors”. This is the truth. May the Good Lord protect us — because our government will not.