Awaiting orders

Published October 25, 2021
The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

IF court orders are not obeyed, they are not worth the paper they are written on. By extension, judges who pass these orders which are ignored are exposed as less than absolutely powerful. Hence, judges endeavour as much as possible to ensure their orders are carried out. The might of a court, after all, is contained in the rain of justice that falls from its order, and not simply in the thunder which accompanies the passing of the order.

In August 2018, Justice Gulzar Ahmed was heading a bench in Karachi, hearing a property dispute over land in Faisal Cantonment in Karachi. At issue was the contention that an application had been made to the relevant cantonment authority for conversion of the land from one category (that of necessary military use) to another. Justice Gulzar astutely noted there was no provision in the cantonment law for such conversion.

He then observed: “We may note that cantonment land is specifically meant for cantonment purposes. Apparently, it cannot be used for any other purpose other than for cantonment and there cannot be any commercial or any other exploitation of such land. We may further observe that the cantonment land is basically land of the federal government who is in charge of the same and no subordinate authority can change the nature of cantonment land. If the land for cantonment is not required, the federal government can discharge the said land from the cantonment area and make it as a civilian land to be administered by the civilian authority.”

Later in 2018, Justice Gulzar began to head the implementation bench tasked with monitoring the progress of past court orders related to land use and public land in Karachi. The implementation bench did not hold court, but sat in the chambers. The relevant stakeholders attended the meetings, including government representatives of both the civilian- and military-controlled areas of Karachi. The minutes would be circulated to the relevant government departments, from where they would leak to the press. In November 2018, during one such meeting, Justice Gulzar ordered the immediate restarting of the Karachi Circular Railway and tramline. He said that no encroachments should be visible in Karachi. The order was to be carried out by the relevant cantonment and other defence and civilian housing authorities.

Orders are given for demolition. Some structures go down. Some still stand.

In January 2019, at a meeting of the implementation bench, Justice Gulzar was reported to have ordered the demolition of a cinema illegally constructed on land for general recreation in Askari 4. Though news channels carried reports based on information sourced from attendees of the meeting, the minutes were never circulated. The cinema survived.

The bench then began hearings in open court. On Jan 22, 2019, it directed the demolition of the KWSB officers club and marriage hall on Sharea Faisal. By Jan 24, the next date of hearing, these had been demolished. On this date, Justice Gulzar ordered: “Further report be also called from the cantonment boards of the city of Karachi and all the chairman of the cantonment boards shall also be present on next date. Similarly, director lands, Cantonment Board Karachi along with cantonment executive officers will also be in attendance on the next date. They shall submit reports to the court about the removal of all sorts of commercial activities from the cantonment lands more particularly global marquees on emergency military medical supplies land for Sindh and Balochistan.

“Adjacent marquees, marriage halls, grand convention hall shall also be removed and all cantonment lands meant for cantonment purposes are to be used only for cantonment purposes and not for any other use and their use shall be restored. A report in this regard shall be made available to this court on the next date; in particular cantonment areas Rashid Minhas Road, Karsaz and Sharea Faisal are initially pointed out and a report in this regard be made available to this court. On the land of old Sabzi Mandi a marriage hall has been constructed by military people, it shall be removed and Askari park shall be restored and it is ensured that proper park on the whole land of old Sabzi Mandi is available for the public for their recreation and enjoyment.” Particular focus was on the cantonment areas where the cinema on Sharea Faisal was located. Yet it survived.

Over the months, the court has ordered various supposedly illegally occupied land to be cleared and seen it through. It took only a few hearings to order the demolition of residences around Karachi’s storm-water drains; some of the affected were leaseholders and regularised homeowners. The court has similarly purged Empress Market of its poor shopkeepers, most of whom were also paying rent to KMC. It has also ordered the demolition of homes along an edge of Kidney Hill Park. These orders have been carried out.

After initial orders calling for the cessation of commercial activities on cantonment land and the latter’s reversion to the federal government and civilian authority (if not in temporary use for martial purposes), a pause in activity was witnessed on the strip of Sharea Faisal along the same route where Nasla Tower and other tall buildings catch the eye. A pause was also seen in the court’s handling of issues related to land not administered by the Sindh government. There was a huge triangular mall under construction on what is supposed to be an air force base. It has since been ringed off from the road with a temporary construction wall. But it still stands.

In the rubble of all that the Supreme Court has ordered demolished because it offends propriety, the report to be submitted by the cantonments which Justice Gulzar had asked for has been lost. The cinema is still standing proudly in the spot where the court opined it didn’t belong. It is currently shut, not because of court orders, but Covid.

The writer is a lawyer.

Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2021

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