Monument on Shahrah-i-Quaideen,  now removed
Monument on Shahrah-i-Quaideen, now removed

I spent 37 years in advertising and closed shop nearly two decades ago. Now in 2018, when news came that the Supreme Court of Pakistan had ordered the removal of advertising billboards across the country, I couldn’t help going down memory lane. The ongoing campaign against land grabbing and removal of encroachments — again under the Supreme Court’s orders — further strengthened the urge to share some memories.

Karachi in the 1950s and 1960s was already a beautiful city. (Its population in 1951 was just one million!) With its wide, clean roads, a network of trams and buses of the Mohammad Ali Tramway Company, many cinema houses, theatres, cafes, billiard rooms, bars, and unspoilt coastline, and a peaceful, fun-loving community comprising Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Hindus, even Jews, the city was happily on the march. Then arrived developers and builders and Karachi turned from the serene, horizontal sprawl to the ugly vertical chaos we see today. Like other sectors contributing to the civic disorder, outdoor advertising business too was up for grabs. In connivance with the civic agencies (the Karachi Development Authority [KDA], the Karachi Municipal Corporation [KMC], and cantonment boards), billboard business became phenomenally lucrative.

Living in Karachi’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal of the 1970s — a peaceful neighbourhood — I watched the disfigurement of the pristine area (now Safari Park) where Mother Nature had made a lake in the lap of a scenic crop of hills that we called the Grand Canyon. Here the civic agencies got down to creating a Safari Park. They constructed miles of pucca road, concretised entire hillsides, erected hundreds of electric poles with fancy lights, fixed iron grills around the lake, and sold kiosks sporting advertising signs — all civil work, for that’s where money could be spent, nay, made! The Safari Park, despite the settlement of animals, turned into a noisy amusement park.

What development agencies have often done in the name of ‘beautification’ of Karachi has been nothing but money-making rackets

Not that the concerned citizens and NGOs — Shehri, for instance — and the media were silent spectators; similar “beautification” projects were coming up in other areas of the city. Old buildings were being destroyed to make way for Orwellian monstrosities called luxury apartments and shops. The decade of the 1980s did see many eminent citizens such as Ardeshir Cowasjee, Hameed Zaman, Najma Babar, Dr Ali Akbar Naqvi, Nusrat Nasrullah, Yasmeen Lari, Ghazi Salahuddin, Zohra Yusuf and others writing strongly on the subject. Many editorials, too, appeared in the newspapers. But as the poet has said: mard-i-naadaan pe kalaam-i-narm-o-nazuk bey-asar! [Fools are not influenced by soft language]. It became clear that conservation of heritage and beautification of the city, that is, aesthetically, was not the civic agencies’ cup of tea.

It goes to the credit of the then chief minister of Sindh, Muzaffar Husain Shah that a Chief Minister’s Aesthetic Committee (CMAC) was constituted by the government of Sindh in March 1993. The justification for the same was felt when huge and ugly concrete “monuments” were built on important roundabouts after the KMC and KDA had allotted these sites to advertisers. These became permanent and free ad sites for advertisers. Billboards dotted the city, as did rampant graffiti. Unsightly cloth banners in tatters played havoc with the urban environment. The mayhem had to be stopped. The need of the hour was to form an Aesthetic Committee made up of well-meaning and educated citizens.

So it came into being. Its terms of reference were: “To review and examine all existing/on-going and future proposals for the improvement and beautification of the urban/built environment of metropolitan Karachi under the jurisdiction of the areas covered by KDA, KMC, Cantonment Boards and other civic agencies. The Committee’s findings and recommendations shall be implemented by the concerned agencies and progress thereof and such implementations shall be reviewed and monitored by the Committee from time to time.”

On January 21, 1993, the Aesthetic Committee was formed comprising Tehmina Habibullah, Noor Jehan Bilgrami, Yasmeen Lari, Qudsia Akbar, Merveen Husain, Mehmood Ali, Hameed Haroon, Ghazi Salahuddin, Nasim Ahmad and myself. The president of the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FPCC&I), Administrator KMC, DG KDA and Director Military Land and Cantonment were co-opted into the Committee. Mehmood Ali was chosen as the chairman and I became the secretary. We set some standards of aesthetics to be followed by sponsors and civic agencies and to stop the debasement of the city in the name of beautification.

Who will call it Safari Park beautified?
Who will call it Safari Park beautified?

One of the major tasks was to rid the city of unchecked outdoor advertising. The billboards business was among the most lucrative rackets. Outdoor advertising agencies were hand-in-glove with civic agencies. They would argue that billboards brought revenue to civic agencies and also ‘beautified’ the city. With the help of the then commissioner of Karachi, Saleem Khan, many billboards along the major roads were removed. As secretary of the committee, I was approached and asked to cooperate with the mafia. When I refused, I was warned, “You will continue to run a small advertising agency but remember, we will soon be back and your aesthetic committee will evaporate into thin air. Let a new chief misinster take charge!”

How true the warning proved to be. Previously only small-sized billboards were erected

on wooden poles and sold to clients for as little as 12,000 to 20,000 rupees; by the end of the year, huge illuminated signs on heavy iron pillars sprung up all along the major roads in large numbers and were so closely placed that they blocked the view of houses, trees and buildings. These monstrous billboards were given a fancy name — Trivision Signs — and each sold for millions of rupees. In no time, it became one of the most lucrative businesses in the metropolis. Most of the sites were under the control of cantonment boards and the Civil Aviation Authority. Some were erected even on army, navy and air force land.

As predicted by the Outdoor Advertising Association, Muzaffar Husain Shah’s government was sent home and one of the first actions taken by the new CM was to disband the one-year-old CMAC.

It wasn’t just a matter of billboards. We had stepped on many other toes as well. Almost all electric poles had at least two or sometimes even four illuminated advertising boxes fixed to them. With wind pressure and persistent vibration, the concrete foundations of the poles used to crack and many electric poles seemed tilted. Cloth banners tied to electric poles, trees, building facades and roundabouts fluttered in the wind. The CM’s Aesthetic Committee was going after all of them.

It was heartening to note that the CMAC had succeeded in motivating private-sector organisations to own the city, sponsor projects and take part in the beautification campaign. A number of designs and models presented by them and their consultants were discussed and approved in CMAC meetings.

Steps such as the removal of direction boards from pavements, the stopping of painting of tree trunks, the planting trees and creating horticultural landscaping, and lighting up architectural heritage buildings were also undertaken.

Needless to say it was difficult to receive willing help and cooperation from officials who were supposed to enforce the CMAC decisions.

Fast forward. With the billboards removed in the year 2018, it looks like Karachi is breathing once again. One can see the trees and the facades of buildings and marvel at the designs and motifs on the few surviving colonial buildings. There are other signs, too, of aesthetic value here and there. But, then, a new kind of outdoor advertising has sprung up lately — huge advertisements on ‘walls’.

Taking a round of the city to see the demolishing of unauthorised shops and other encroachments, I was saddened to watch the scene — roads choked with debris, broken windows and doors, precariously hanging electricity and telephone wires, leaking pipes, shattered facades — helplessness writ large on the faces of the inhabitants.

This brings me back to 1993 when the need for a citizen’s aesthetics committee was felt in order to oversee the beautification work carried out by civic agencies.

After a quarter of a century the need for such a committee remains.

You will find in no park or city
A monument to a committee.
—Victoria Pasternackg

The writer is an amateur photographer and singer, trained in classical music by Ustad Wilayat Ali Khan

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 20th, 2019

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