IN 1994 Karachi citizens of all walks of life got together to create the Citizens’ Forum on Mass Transit. Through this organisation they opposed the construction of an elevated light rail through the whole length of M.A. Jinnah Road.
Their objection was that the elevated light rail and its stations, which would cover the entire width of M.A. Jinnah Road, would make the bulk of Karachi’s built-heritage invisible, apart from causing major environmental degradation to where Karachi began as a city. They also argued that, as a result of the elevated light rail and its stations, the rehabilitation of Karachi’s historic district would not be possible.
The elevated transit-way reappeared, either as a bus rapid transit (BRT) or light rail, in every subsequent mass transit proposal for the city and was opposed each time through contacts with officials in Karachi and Islamabad, newspaper articles and public forums. The debate ended when it was decided by the executives, consultants and the board of the Karachi Infrastructure Development Company (in charge of designing and overseeing the implementation of the now under-construction Green Line BRT project) that the Green Line would be at-grade or underground throughout the length of M.A. Jinnah Road from Guru Mandir to Merewether Tower. This was a welcome decision.
The view of the Quaid’s mausoleum must not be obstructed.
However, due to technical design issues it now appears that the BRT might have to be elevated from Seventh Day Adventist Hospital to the Municipal Park on M.A. Jinnah Road. This will obstruct the view to about 50 listed heritage buildings and also obstruct the view of the Quaid’s mazar from M.A. Jinnah Road. Here it is worthwhile recalling why the mazar is located where it is and the importance of that location.
On the night of Sept 11, 1948, the Quaid died and the Karachi administration, with the approval of the founding fathers of Pakistan, chose the location for the Quaid’s mazar. Hashim Raza, the then commissioner of Karachi, describes in his book how they searched all night for an appropriate location and that the site of the mazar was finally chosen for its height (visibility), accessibility, and because it was in the heart of Karachi.
The choice was made after considering many alternatives including that of graveyards on the northern banks of the Lyari. The grave was located so that it lay on the axis of what was then Bunder Road, Karachi’s main thoroughfare and historically its most important road. It also lies on the axis of the Bunder Road extension. As a result, the mazar is visible from the whole length of the two roads when pollution does not obscure it.
Meanwhile both these roads now carry the name of the Quaid and the decision to rename them M.A. Jinnah Road and New M.A. Jinnah Road was consciously taken and has a close link with the mazar that lies on their axis.
When Yahya Merchant designed the mausoleum in 1960, he enhanced the height of the podium by 11 feet to make the mazar more visible and in his design he respected the decisions that were taken regarding making the mazar a landmark monument visible from all the roads surrounding it.
If we go ahead with building the proposed elevated section of the BRT and stations that cover the entire width of M.A. Jinnah Road, then the mazar will not be visible from the Seventh Day Hospital to the Municipal Park on Bunder Road and well beyond. The vision of the founding fathers and that of the architect will be compromised and it will be a loss to Karachi and to its present and future citizens.
In addition, conditions below the proposed elevated BRT and its stations on M.A. Jinnah Road will be devoid of sunlight and environmentally as degraded as under the various existing flyovers and expressways in the city.
Infrastructure is important but its design must not only respect history, identity, national monuments and urban planning axioms. It must also enhance their importance. If we do not follow this principle we will lose whatever little history is left of this abused and unfortunate city. It is not only the job of Karachi’s citizens to ensure this but more so of the Sindh Culture Department and, in the case of the mazar, of the Quaid-i-Azam Mazar Management Board.
A firm decision must be taken that no elevated structure is built on M.A. Jinnah Road so that the sanctity of the mazar is preserved and that an alternative solution to the elevation is found. Planners feel that with some compromises, re-routing traffic in Saddar with the help of a few traffic-related engineering projects and better traffic management, this is possible.
Hopefully, one day when Karachi is pollution free and wider parts of M.A. Jinnah road are lined with trees as they once were, the Quaid’s mazar will be visible from Merewether Tower.
The writer is an architect.
Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2017