KARACHI: Karachi Mayor Waseem Akhtar has vowed to take on the provincial powers that be in order to reclaim the city from the neglect it has suffered since the Sindh government wrested control of Karachi Metropolitan Corporation’s municipal functions. Among his priorities is a campaign to revamp KMC, remove encroachments and revive Karachi’s green spaces, foremost among them being Bagh Ibne Qasim.

In a conversation with Dawn in his office at the KMC building, he categorically stated he would restore the park, the city’s largest, to its former lush expanse when it used to play host to hundreds of visitors every day. The mayor said he would not allow Bahria Town to take over Bagh Ibne Qasim and ruled out an out-of-court settlement on the issue.

The biggest problem is lack of funds. “I’ve had to divert funds from elsewhere but that’ll only bring in Rs40 million. That’s nothing. With that we’re getting the motors in the sump [which used to supply recycled wastewater for irrigating the park] replaced because everything has gone missing, even the pipes.”

Examine: Karachi’s dilemma

MQM-P may not have to work under the pressures it did when Altaf Hussain was calling the shots from London, but that does not mean pressure from other quarters is not being applied. According to a source in KMC, Bahria Town’s claim in court that it was no longer interested in taking over the park is only meant for public consumption, and that Bahria is trying to approach the mayor through top Sindh government sources to make a “deal”.

Vows not to allow takeover of Bagh Ibne Qasim

For his part, Mr Akhtar seems to be a man on a mission. “I’ve been elected, so I have to deliver. When I came to this office, there was nothing here. All there was in the departments were broken chairs and tables. Officers would come in after 11.30. I’m trying to streamline things. For instance, I’ve terminated the services of 168 ‘ghost’ city wardens so I can save some of the millions of rupees that were going in salaries,” he said. “I have very few departments which can raise the funds on which KMC can run. The departments where I really need to work are not with me — water and sewage board, solid waste, building control, master plan; the Sindh government has taken all of them.”

Mr Akhtar described the ‘clean-up’ of the KMC as just “one of the many wars” he is fighting. He said he has told the Bahria management that there were to be no more helicopter landings in Bagh Ibne Qasim, as had taken place around 10 days ago when the company’s CEO Malik Riaz, had arrived in the city. “I called the Civil Aviation Authority and they said Bahria has no permission to land a helicopter there. Moreover, there are maalis (gardeners) working there. What if they get caught in the rotor blades or on the ground?” he said.

Keen to demonstrate that work is indeed being done in what was a wasteland a few days ago, Mr Akhtar took journalists on a visit to Bagh Ibne Qasim. Scores of KMC gardeners were there collecting the detritus strewn across its 130 acres. A pump was suctioning out the filth from a big pool of sludge, the result of a collapsed sewage line. Former DG Parks Liaquat Ali Khan, whose help has been sought by the mayor in reviving Bagh Ibne Qasim, was supervising the work along with several other KMC officials.

One of them related how the KMC gardeners had to be prised away from the homes of various Sindh government ministers and senior officials who had got them to work at their houses.

When Mr Akhtar was asked why, when he took office as mayor, he did not cancel Bahria’s contract signed with KMC in March 2016 — under which the private developer was to maintain the park for one year, and instead proceeded to further ruin it, as reported in this paper on April 18 — he claimed he was unaware of the contract.

“All the documents were secret and they were with them [Bahria] so that in case they’re taken to court they can present them there,” he said. “They signed the contract so they could control the park and do what they wanted with it. While doing that they badly damaged Kothari parade. Earlier they fooled the people by building this underpass, which was only to serve their Icon Tower.” One end of that underpass opens up inside the park itself, near the half-renovated, and now abandoned, aquarium.

KMC officials present told Dawn that the private developer intended to take over another five acres of area for its underground parking, in addition to the thousands of yards already encroached upon. The mayor asserted that he will have none of it, and has had one of the two tunnels of the underpass bricked up.

Nevertheless, why should the citizens of Karachi trust MQM, any faction of it, given its history of violence? “I know your question is valid and it will take some time to change perceptions,” said the mayor. “That’ll happen through people seeing our work — for example, this park, our cleaning and desilting of Neher-i-Khayyam, as well as our attitude, our workers’ attitude. If I was a target killer I wouldn’t have people like architect Shahid Abdullah working with me on Neher-i-Khayyam. But what I need more than anything, is for the people of Karachi to stand with me.”

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2017