Buried in concrete

Published October 8, 2017
The writer is a former KMC administrator.
The writer is a former KMC administrator.

DURING the last 20 years, Karachi has lost most of its open spaces, including even the smallest amenity spaces. While rapid population growth has its own adverse effects, those of skyrocketing population density are worse.

In 2014, a story in Dawn about a wooded amenity plot under threat of losing its 1,400 mature trees sent shockwaves through the city. KMC had signed an agreement to convert the area opposite Dolmen Mall in Clifton into a multistorey parking plaza. Once a beautiful coastal stretch, the area was already overwhelmed with concrete high-rises.

The ‘tree island’ is a three-acre park-cum-parking plot designated as ST-12 in KDA’s master plan. An acre of it was earlier lost to the remodelling of the road outside the mall. Attempts to commercialise the rest are an excellent example of the decades-long exploitation of Karachi’s land.

During the hearings by a division bench of the Sindh High Court of a constitutional petition filed by the residents to save the trees, the KMC advocate assured the bench that KMC would maintain two-thirds of the plot for the park and one-third for parking. Advocate Salahuddin Ahmed for the petitioners argued that the respondents must be restrained from cutting down trees to make room for hoardings. The division bench granted the petitioners their plea on Sep 17, 2015.

Karachi’s green spaces are being pawned off for profit.

However, unknown to the jubilant residents, another claim through Suit No. 1555 of 2005 was being heard by a single bench of the Sindh High Court. Rehan Zafar, president of a previously unheard of NGO, Zafar Memorial Educational Society (ZMES), was claiming that in response to a request by the society’s predecessor, Mumtaz Memorial Educational Society (MMES), for allotment of land to establish a school on vacant plot ST-12, the then senior director land, KMC, had offered 6,266.66 square yards of the plot on June 6, 1994.

The documents submitted in court by the plaintiff are full of contradictions. They show that ZMES was registered in 1988. But they also claim that ZMES was merely a change made to MMES’s name in 1994 by the general body of MMES which was registered in 1983.

According to KMC, none of the documents presented by the ‘society’ are traceable, nor does there exist in its records any file documenting the claimed allotment of the amenity plot.

Interestingly, ZMES says that in response to KMC’s offer of 1994 for allotment of 6,266 plus square yards, it could not deposit the Rs126,587 challan amount. Therefore it requested an extension vide letters in 1994 and 1995 but KMC did not respond. In 1997, when they approached KMC after arranging the funds, they were told that no such file exists in the corporation’s records.

The law does not allow any KMC director to allot an amenity plot, something that requires multiple cast-iron approvals. An amenity plot cannot be allotted without a KMC council resolution, approval of the Sindh government, etc. The KMC Council Secretariat maintains the record of each and every resolution ever passed by it.

None of the documents presented by the society for the first 10 years of its claims are verifiable. Yet a request for allotment of land worth several billion rupees was suddenly accepted in 2005 by a district officer. This allotment was later cancelled by the same officer without following legal formalities — as expected, this error worked well for the society in the court.

Such claims are not unique, but rather common tactics used to establish third-party interest on public properties in collusion with unscrupulous land officials. Thousands of similar cases exist in Karachi alone.

Throughout court pro­­­ceedings, KMC failed to inform the single bench that the plot was never owned by KMC and remains KDA’s property till date. Nor was the honourable judge ever informed by the KMC’s legal adviser about the judgement of the earlier two-member division bench that could not be overturned by the single bench. Other suppressions and omissions led to a flawed decision, offering a good case for appeal.

By 2005, emboldened by the Musharraf era’s unchecked devolution, many officers of extremely dubious reputation had started to pawn off government lands at throwaway prices, committing crimes previously unthinkable.

During this period real estate agents came up with an interesting term, China-cutting. Fearing that plots illegally carved out of public parks, green belts etc by the MQM could get cancelled anytime, estate agents quickly disposed of them.

According to some senior KMC officials, the legal adviser, KMC, never attends court, instead sending incompetent individuals to fight its cases. Meanwhile, officers of the KMC land department have fraudulently allotted KMC bungalows and parks all over the city. Unfortunately, KMC, once a guardian of public land, is now no different from other land-owning agencies in Sindh.

The writer is a former KMC administrator.

Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2017

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