How Karachi's public parks are being gifted to rapacious commercial interests

Green spaces belonging to Karachi’s citizens are being handed over to greedy power elite.
Published April 18, 2017
Identical views of the park, which was lush green before and is a wasteland today (right).—White Star
Identical views of the park, which was lush green before and is a wasteland today (right).—White Star

KARACHI: On Friday afternoon, a black 15-seater helicopter, with a gold Bahria Town emblem on the side glinting in the sunlight, approached Bagh Ibne Qasim, the city’s largest public park. Huge clouds of dust billowed upwards as it descended towards the barren ground. Out emerged Malik Riaz, once contractor for the Military Engineer Services, now CEO of Bahria Town Ltd, the real estate behemoth. Accompanying him were his son, son-in-law and a few senior Bahria employees.

To greet Mr Riaz, MQM-P leaders Farooq Sattar and Mayor Waseem Akhtar were at hand. A meeting was to take place in connection with a petition filed against the recent handing over of this public park to Bahria private limited.

The 130-acre Bagh Ibne Qasim today is a shadow of its former glory. The queues of public buses — between 60 and 100 every day — which brought thousands of people from all over Karachi to the gates of the park in Clifton have disappeared. The grass that once carpeted the park’s expanse is long dead.

Even until four years ago, Bagh Ibne Qasim — maintained by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) — with its velvety grass, well-manicured flowerbeds and stone benches, would be thronged with families in the evenings. Its fortunes began to change when the PPP government, through amendments to the Sindh Local Government Act, 2013, took over many of the local government’s powers and deprived KMC of most of its fund-raising sources.

Green spaces belonging to Karachi’s citizens are being handed over to rapacious commercial interests

“The Sindh government created the conditions whereby the party leadership and its close business associates could make tons of money, all at the cost of the city,” said a former KMC official. “For instance, it’s well known that before 2016 the contract for maintaining Bagh Ibne Qasim was with a front company owned by a PPP MNA from Lyari. You can see what has become of it.”

Through a notification dated March 30, the PPP government in Sindh “handed over” Bagh Ibne Qasim “for adoption” to Bahria Town. According to the contract, Bahria undertook to “renovate, landscape, improve, reconstruct, rehabilitate and maintain the said project for a period of 10 years on its own expense”. On April 3, the Sindh High Court suspended the government’s notification after Mayor Waseem Akhtar filed a petition against it. The court has directed both parties to submit their replies by today.

A view of the park then (left) and now.—White Star
A view of the park then (left) and now.—White Star

The MQM-P leaders’ public outrage is a smokescreen. Far from resisting the provincial government, evidence shows that the KMC, under the control of MQM-P since January 2016 actually colluded to hand over the park to the powerful developer.

Mayor Waseem Akhtar has also claimed that KMC was not taken into confidence by the Sindh government when the agreement was signed between Bahria Town and Secretary, SLGD Muhammad Ramzan Awan. However, the document bears the signature of Afaq Mirza — a known confidante of Mr Sattar — currently director general (DG), Parks & Horticulture Department, KMC, as a witness.

Also, more than a year ago, on March 16, 2016, KMC gave a one-year, Rs1,73,25,000 contract for Bagh Ibn Qasim’s maintenance to Bahria Town. The letter awarding the contract was signed by then DG Parks, KMC, Asadullah Shah.

The work order, also signed by Mr Shah, was issued a day later. It states: “Please note that the work should be carried out strictly according to Department’s specifications and will be completed within the schedule time limit [of] one year failing which penalty at Rs1,000 (per day) will be charged.”

Google Earth satellite images in its ‘historical imagery’ link are very instructive in assessing how much maintenance Bahria Town carried out in the park during the year ending March 16, 2017. They show that, if anything, Bagh Ibne Qasim is in an even more shambolic state than it was when the maintenance contract was awarded to the private developer. Not only that, but Bahria Town — in order to benefit its Icon Tower which occupies the land adjacent the park — used the contract to lay 1,000-metre pipelines across Bagh Ibne Qasim for the disposal of sewage and storm water.

A former DG Parks narrated how the provincial powers that be made it very clear that the matter was not open to question. “When Assistant Director Parks Majeed Memon was informed about the digging in the park, he reported it to his superiors, but he was harshly reprimanded and immediately removed from his post,” he said. Although he was soon reinstated — being the nephew of former minister and PPP heavyweight Sharjeel Memon has its advantages — he was told not to repeat the mistake again.

The newly constructed support infrastructure including several large manholes with concrete covers are visible on ground as well as on satellite images of Bagh Ibne Qasim. Sections of 12-inch diameter pipelines can still be seen strewn about here and there. The black polyethylene irrigation lines that brought wastewater from the KMC sump at the park’s south-western corner to sustain the greenery in Bagh Ibne Qasim have been ruptured by the digging for the sewage pipeline.

Manholes were constructed and a 1,000-metre long pipeline laid across Bagh Ibne Qasim, a public park, for the benefit of Bahria Icon Tower, a private venture.— White Star
Manholes were constructed and a 1,000-metre long pipeline laid across Bagh Ibne Qasim, a public park, for the benefit of Bahria Icon Tower, a private venture.— White Star

Why then has the park been “handed over for adoption” to a company that has clearly not honoured its obligations under a contract which had ended a mere fortnight before? Could an entity that had not met the terms of a one-year contract for which it was to be paid Rs1,73,25,000, conceivably carry out its stipulated responsibilities for 10 years, that too for free?

When former DG Parks Asadullah Shah, under whom the earlier maintenance contract had been signed, was asked the questions above, he replied with an embarrassed laugh, “I am a government servant and can’t say anything on this. It’s a policy matter. You are the best judge.”

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s legacy

Bagh Ibne Qasim, located in KDA Scheme 5, is a legacy of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s expansive vision for Pakistan’s largest city. The founder of the PPP imagined it as an area dotted with generously laid out parks and green spaces for the people of Karachi. According to a former director land Karachi Development Authority (KDA), Mr Bhutto returned the initial draft layout drawn up by Karachi’s renowned Cornell-trained town planner Ali Ahmed with an observation that it did not adequately meet his requirement for parks in the area.

In 1996, then Sindh chief minister Abdullah Shah, father of the present chief minister, transferred all parks and playgrounds in KDA Scheme 5 to KMC because during Benazir Bhutto’s government the latter had far more financial resources to maintain these green spaces.

However, over the last four years or so, slowly but surely, the park fell into disrepair. An area resident, Farah Hassan said: “My son used to play football there every day. But what was once a family park has become a hangout for shady individuals, and I no longer let him go there.”

The lush greenery of the park from the days of its beginning (left) is nowhere to be seen now.—White Star
The lush greenery of the park from the days of its beginning (left) is nowhere to be seen now.—White Star

According to a former senior KMC official, there are a number of problematic issues in the attempted “handing over” of Bagh Ibne Qasim to Bahria Town.

Firstly, neither the Sindh government nor KMC have any claim to the ownership of the park. When a land authority develops a housing scheme, it recovers its costs from the sale of plots through occupancy value and development charges. These costs, in the present instance, would have included the amount that KDA had to pay for the land to the Board of Revenue, Sindh and the cost of infrastructure development, ie roads, water supply, sewage disposal and development of amenities including parks, playgrounds, schools, mosques, etc.

The park thus belongs to the residents of KDA Scheme 5 where it is located, with KMC responsible for its maintenance and further development. Even the 309-member KMC council cannot vote to have the ownership of the park changed without inviting objections and seeking permission from the area residents.

Secondly, in its March 30 notification, the provincial government claimed that Bagh Ibne Qasim had been “taken over by its Local Government Department from KMC” before it was handed over for adoption to Bahria Town. According to the Rules of Business, 1986 as amended in 2002, the role of the Sindh Local Government Department (SLGD) is to coordinate, supervise and monitor the functioning of local departments/councils. None of the rules provide for SLGD to act as an agency that can undertake execution of development works on its own.

Thirdly, while the Section 74 of Sindh Local Government Act 2013 allows for the government to “take over the management and control of any institution or service maintained by a Council” — in this case KMC — it only allows transfer of such management and control to another council, not to a private party.

The ruling PPP clearly attaches no significance to what are not only legal niceties but also its moral obligations to the people of the city. Neither apparently, does the local government, notwithstanding its recent show of protest. Both are complicit in the ongoing commercialisation of the city’s major parks.

This is being facilitated by a thus far little-known Sindh government notification dated Nov 21, 2016 which distorts the above-mentioned Section 74 to authorise SLGD to “take over” any public parks or gardens from the KMC and assign their maintenance to any company or multinational. Including Bagh Ibne Qasim, five parks in the city — the others being Benazir Bhutto Park, Frere Gardens, Beach Park and Jehangir Park — have been or are in process of being handed over to commercial interests.

On Dec 23, 2016, the government of Sindh issued a notification declaring the takeover of Benazir Bhutto Park by SLGD. It is also believed that that the powers that be in the province have decided to hand over Frere Gardens to the organiser of an annual food festival on the premises, while Beach Park and Jehangir Park are also being gifted to commercial interests in a similarly questionable manner.

The Supreme Court and Sindh High Court orders in several cases have held the commercialisation of public parks and amenities to be a violation of the law and citizens’ rights.

Bahria’s Town’s footprint

Notwithstanding these court judgements, the iconic Bagh Ibne Qasim is being slowly devoured by Bahria Icon Tower with the full knowledge of the provincial government and KMC, well before the Sindh government decided to make the process ‘official’.

A senior land official, now retired, questioned the blatantly preferential treatment that KMC has meted out to Bahria. As per KMC rules, he said, Bahria’s bid for the Rs1,73,25,000 maintenance contract was accompanied by a pay order of five per cent of the value, which came to roughly Rs 850,000. “But although Bahria did not even attempt to maintain the park, KMC has still not encashed the bid bond submitted by the developer,” he disclosed. “Neither has it taken any of the actions that one would have expected it to take. It didn’t cancel the contract or blacklist the firm or levy the Rs1,000 per day penalty stipulated in the contract. It didn’t even invite new tenders. Instead, it gave the park for adoption to the same party!”

Manholes were constructed and a 1,000-metre long pipeline laid across Bagh Ibne Qasim, a public park, for the benefit of Bahria Icon Tower, a private venture.— White Star
Manholes were constructed and a 1,000-metre long pipeline laid across Bagh Ibne Qasim, a public park, for the benefit of Bahria Icon Tower, a private venture.— White Star

The high-rise complex has already spread over large chunks of parkland. For one, as alleged in Suit 2064 of 2014 and other complaints pending in the SHC, Bahria Town has illegally taken over 4,050 square yards that was given by KMC to Ram Krishna Mission Trust on temporary occupation lease in 1944 to set up a school for low-caste Hindu children.

(The history of the school is illustrative of the decline in governance in Sindh. After the managing trustee Pershotam Das migrated to India in 1947, the school was illegally occupied by a man named Ali Akbar Awan, who tried for over 35 years to get the plot regularised. But KMC officials resisted his attempts tooth and nail. According to documents available with Dawn, he was not able to get it regularised until 1997, when the subsequent buyer Mohammed Yousuf Baloch, now a senator, managed to get it regularised by KMC with support from Farooq Sattar, then senior minister in the Sindh government.)

According to the petition mentioned above, several other chunks of parkland that have been illegally amalgamated into 9,360 sq yards of what used to be Hussain D’Silva flats are now part of the 17,517 sq yards the complex occupies today.

Another several thousand square yards of land to the north of Bagh Ibne Qasim have been swallowed up by the underpass constructed to service Icon Tower. In the process of its construction, moreover, irreparable damage was done to the Kothari Parade, which was bequeathed in 1919 by philanthropist Jehangir Hormusji Kothari to the people of Karachi.

“This is how commercial interests eat away at citizens’ heritage and their constitutional rights unless they themselves stand up and resist,” said a former KMC official. What will it take for Karachiites to reclaim their green spaces that are being devoured by the rapacious power elite?