SINDH’s anti-encroachment drive is under fire. The operations around Empress Market and the greater Saddar area in Karachi, in particular, have drawn howls of protest from those among us who identify with progressive and liberal ideals.
The central argument put forward by those opposing the removal of illegal structures and clearance of public areas is that the encroachers are supposedly poor and their businesses were catering to low-income groups. It is doubtful that these well-meaning souls go to these areas and witness the daily misery that commuters and the area residents suffer even while traversing on foot, let alone travelling in a vehicle or a bicycle.
Are they seriously trying to pass off butchers and dry fruit and spice merchants as poor? A poor meat-seller would be a rarity in any part of the metropolis. Do they even know the profit margins on spices even without adulteration?
Since when has it become anti-public to ask for a little space for pedestrians?
Lest the intent here is misunderstood, no one begrudges anyone earning a livelihood and making ends meet, but must it happen at everyone else’s expense? Is it too much to ask for a reasonably free flow of traffic for public and private transport? Since when has it become anti-public to ask for a little space for pedestrians? Why don’t the critics invite a cobbler to set up a makeshift shop in front of their bungalow situated on the rich side of Clifton Bridge? Or encourage a few fruit vendors to set up their carts right outside their high-rise condos?
One concern expressed about the anti-encroachment drive is the ‘gentrification’ of the locale — basically, pushing out low-income residents or visitors as clean, spacious localities appreciate in value and the poor are either bought out or made to feel unwelcome by the newly moved-in rich. Inclusive cities where people from all strata of society are enabled to live and visit do take careful planning and implementation, but this challenge in no way means that we shy away from regaining some of the city’s charm lost over the decades. When people wistfully remember the erstwhile Elphinstone Street (Zaibunnisa Street) and Victoria Road (Abdullah Haroon Road), they actually rue the fact that these intellectual and style hubs turned into chaotic bazaars. Lively and livable should not be mutually exclusive.
Another justification trotted out for stopping anti-encroachment drives all over the country is that the rich and powerful have been getting away with usurping what does not belong to them since the country came into being. Hence everyone else should enjoy a free-for-all as well. This argument is convoluted. Why not join hands and move petitions in courts of law, mount name-and-shame campaigns, and hold vigils outside illegally occupied spaces and structures built in contravention of the law by the rich and the mighty, instead of asking for the same impunity for everyone?
Who among us has not seen stalls springing up on every overhead pedestrian bridge? Should we let them peddle their wares and the rest of us can go back to crossing the busy thoroughfares by twisting and turning through the fences that have been put up to stop exactly such behaviour, and risk life and limb in the process? When governments finally woke up to the needs of the disabled and made sure to construct ramps alongside the steps going up these pedestrian bridges, Qingqi rickshaws and motorcycle riders monopolised these facilities making it impossible for any wheelchair-bound person to use them. Ask the abusers and they will invariably tell you that with the rising fuel prices, the poor cannot be expected to take a long detour to get to the other side of the road. While you are still smarting from this comeback, they would question what the harm is in using the ramp since there are no wheelchairs in sight?
How would you like to deal with this as no one in this melee is likely to belong to the exploitative class, and yet have no qualms about taking advantage of the other?
Driving and riding on the wrong side has also become an epidemic everywhere in the country. Ask people why they do it, and the high cost of fuel and the U-turn being too far away is usually the answer. It appears that Prime Minister Imran Khan has his work cut out for him in convincing the public of the utility of U-turns.
The big question is: should we halt the implementation of every law until the regularisation, or razing, of Banigala takes place? Or should we proceed with enforcing the rules where their breach causes the most inconvenience to the public, and continue to build pressure on the rich and influential to adhere to the same standards? Some may say this presents the chicken-and-egg dilemma. Only in cricketing parlance, getting out on ‘unda’ (zero) gets you a duck — not a chicken.
The writer is a poet and analyst.
Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2018