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The experience of waiting at one of Karachi’s many traffic signals is peculiar and perhaps unique to our part of the world. Most Karachiites treat the red light as a mere suggestion that they can choose to ignore. When the traffic does come to a halt, vehicles stop bumper-to-bumper leaving space for little else. Yet, somehow, bikers manage to find room to cruise through the maze.
We’ve all hoped to find green-lit signals to avoid the hullabaloo. It is thus understandable that development projects that allow traffic to flow swiftly and signal-free are proudly advertised by the government.
But arguably, this is development for the privileged alone.
Sure, during the construction period these projects are a temporary inconvenience for people en route, but they are pink slips for individuals conducting business activities in the surroundings.
Nasir Iqbal, owner of Crystal Lights near Punjabi Chowrangi sees traffic lights as an “economy of their own”. “There are so many people in this city whose survival is directly dependent on these signals. Every time your car stops at one, women and children approach you — some beg, some clean your windows, others try to sell you flowers and toys. [This is an] annoying hindrance... nonetheless [it is] an informal economy too, a system of this country,” he says.
While the issue of beggary in Karachi is a multifaceted one, as dynamics of traffic movement change, everyone from small business owners to fruit vendors on pushcarts is impacted.
Most recently, Punjab Chowrangi, one of the city’s busiest roundabouts, has been dug up from all sides except the centre. Residents and shop owners in the neighbourhood stress that there is a clear lack of planning. “There is so much construction in Dubai. Why don’t we see this chaos happening there? Because there’s prior planning involved,” says Farooq Siddiqi, who runs a showroom in the locale.
Tragedy struck in late June when two boys died here. As Karachi saw heavy rain, the 12 and 13-year-olds went for a swim in the water that collected in the under-construction underpass site, never to come back.
While residents of the area blamed the contractors for taking no precautionary measures, the hapless parents decided not to pursue the case legally.
The horizon stretches from a jumble of cars overtaking each other, to a tall building with a gigantic Zong advertisement plastered from top to bottom that boldly reads, “A new dream”.
On the adjacent road, bikes and cars graze through sidewalks substituting for the lack of a main road; mouths of gutters are left open with discarded timber planks and metal rods jarring out. Electricity poles bend over with the weight of the messy wires and barricades jut out onto the main road guarding the remaining unaffected thoroughfare.
The Sindh Government’s recent go-ahead of the Rs600million underpass project has raised some eyebrows.
Many shop owners are relived that the road finally may get an upgrade. Others, however, reject this view. These shop owners foresee that the underpass will swiftly take commuters to the next intersection only to be stuck in traffic again. They argue, it is thus not worth the amount of business and time they are losing out on during the construction.
Habib-ur-Rehman of Ideal Bakers near Punjab Chowrangi says that since the construction has started, the constant traffic jams have kept customers away. “One loses almost 2 to 3 hours [in the traffic]. My own friends have stopped coming over to meet me,” he says.
This feels like déjà vu to most shopkeepers in the area. The adjacent Gizri area got a flyover in Jan 2010; the construction on the project started in early 2007, and impacted businesses not only in Gizri but also Punjab Chowrangi for three long years.
The construction of the Gizri Flyover created a bottleneck between the jam-packed Khayaban-e-Shamsheer road on one side, and the Punjab Chowrangi on the other.
The bridge now extends to the centre of the area, leaving narrow roads on both ends. There is a height clearance on the flyover, which means it is only accessible to cars and bikes.
Aun Ali, a shopkeeper from the area, sees this as a physical representation of class division — the upper class living their fast-paced life as their cars speed above, while the lower class struggles and pushes through obstacles on public buses below. He emphasises that the flyover is creating more havoc than the ease of congestion that it promised. “The main problem has always been the trucks and buses, and they can’t even use the flyover,” he says.
Vendors on pushcarts are similarly frustrated. “There were problems back then, but at least there was business,” laments a fruit vendor looking back at a pre-flyover Gizri.
“Our roads have now become too small for the women of Defence,” another shopkeeper in Gizri’s Ghousia Market complains, only half in jest.
The flyover leaves no room for customers to park their cars in the marketplace. “We have gone down from earning a lakh a month to Rs20,000. When we pay rent, we should get relief. If we don’t get parking for our customers, we don’t even make enough to take rent out of our salaries, what’s the point?” another shop owner asks.
Just a 10-minute drive away, the Bahria flyover runs high over the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine, bowing just before the Jehangir Kothari Parade. An already dense area, the vicinity is home to multiple iconic buildings within a one-kilometre radius. An underground subway leads men and women to the recently renovated shrine on the opposite side, where thousands throng every Thursday to ask for their deepest desires. A 300-year-old underground temple, the Shree Ratneswar Mahadev Temple, hides its weakening cave from the changing landscape. In the barren landscape of Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim, the iconic monuments of Kothari Parade and Lady Lloyd Pier stand isolated and lonely. Around the corner on the opposite side of the road, Park Towers, once one of Karachi’s go-to shopping destinations, bends in a curvature almost as if exiting the scene.
Towering above all, as the construction continues, the Bahria Icon Tower rises higher and higher each day to its final glory of 68 stories.
Construction of the Bahria Flyover in the area met its share of criticism and roadblocks owing to the project’s impact on its neighbouring sites. But now as the flyover is fully functional, even its staunchest opponents seem to have given up hope. Zara Shah, director of marketing of Park Tower’s management company and a resident of the area, is dismissive about the situation today. There was a time when she had fought alongside the shop owners and workers to protest against the construction.
But today she seems disillusioned with the situation. Clearly, the new landscape has permanently changed the dynamics of the shopping mall.
“[The flyover] is purely for Bahria, not for the general public,” Shah declares. She maintains that the construction period not only affected their footfall, causing many stores to shutdown and shift, but also curtailed public access to nearby Clifton Playland and Bin Qasim Park.
Playland (colloquially referred to as Funland) was popularly known and visited by people from Karachi and visitors from Interior Sindh. It prides over being the ‘first of its kind’ to operate dodgem cars and other recreational rides as early as the 1970s. Today, at the back entrance of the street that leads to the amusement park from Seaview, shopkeepers and passersby seem to know little about its whereabouts.
“Funland? That closed down many years ago,” misinforms a young boy at a nearby tea stall.
A few doubtful minutes down the broken muddy path, one of the old gates of the Bin Qasim Park reveals empty rides spinning slowly and families snacking in the open cafe. Next to them a thin rollercoaster track is being welded directly under the under construction Icon Tower.
One can see the colours of construction material replace the blue sky from this viewpoint — the Icon Tower intimidating even the biggest ride in the park into looking tiny. Besides a crowd from the shrine on Thursdays, which has a back entrance leading out into the park, and a few Sundays, business here remains slow.
In the amusement park’s management quarter, the establishment’s supervisor Mohammad Shoaib says, “Public marr rahi hai”[The crowds are dying]. “Insha Allah we will improve the situation ourselves — we have the experience and the means to do it,” he says. A bold declaration considering the front entrance to the amusement park has been shut down for many months now causing many people to divert to other places, or worse, just forget about its existence.
While Shoaib puts on a brave face, the inactivity at food stalls and makeshift kiosks outside tells a different story.
Halima Sadia is a communication design graduate from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. She currently works at Vasl Artists' Collective, and freelances as a graphic designer and food photographer. Follow her @halima.sad or see her work here.