OVER the past few weeks, the Supreme Court has issued directives for fixing land utilisation and building construction practices in Karachi. The court has ordered the demolition of illegally constructed buildings and the removal of encroachments from public lands. Previously, it had also advised the revitalisation of the Karachi Circular Railways, while only recently, the Sindh High Court directed the setting up of a medical and dental college on the premises of Mohatta Palace, a heritage complex.
There has been a mixed response to this trend of judicial intervention for reforming the natural and built environment. Some stakeholders believe that the courts have become saviours of the public interest. Others say that most such actions reflect a selective justice as countless similar violations are found elsewhere in the city without corresponding action being ordered. Common to both arguments is the awareness that the executive has failed to protect the natural and built environment, and ecological assets, and has not been able to complete approved projects in a timely manner. The question is, can such complex matters be fixed judicially?
People are punished for constructing homes illegally. But no official is questioned for not developing options for land supply for housing low-income groups. No legal and institutional option is available for the urban poor in Karachi or elsewhere to access housing. When the poor develop makeshift shelters and homes at relatively invisible locations, they experience evictions, although powerful investors and institutions succeed in acquiring land for the same purpose. The Sindh cabinet recently approved the allotment of 200 acres of land to an agency in Keamari district. But the urban poor do not have a housing scheme they can apply to. Will corrective judicial action be taken to remedy this?
Much of the rot in regulating the built environment is by design, with the government’s collusion. The Supreme Court recently ordered the demolition of many buildings whose construction violated building by-laws and ownership and zoning statutes. But there is little effort to reform the provincial building control authority. Regulation, monitoring and control of construction practices are important. The existence of legally valid and technically appropriate building solutions for various facilities is a prerequisite for healthy lifestyles. Social justice and protection of rights can be safeguarded if buildings and structures do not violate plans, rules and zoning guidelines.
Can the city’s problems be fixed judicially?
Unfortunately, private parties with active support from various agencies and tiers of government have facilitated illegal development. Acting on petitions and exercising suo motu jurisdiction, the superior courts have taken action on several occasions, apparently in a bid to set technically and legally correct precedents for the building control authority to follow. This does not appear to have had any effect.
The interests of the political leadership often coincide with the aims of corrupt officers/ functionaries. A former chief of the building control authority is alleged to have pocketed vast sums while in office. A police officer whose tenure saw local communities uprooted to make way for large-scale real estate development appears immune from judicial action.
Instead of fulfilling their responsibilities, officers and staff keep busy following the directives of their political bosses. In return, they receive favours which even the judiciary cannot redress each time. The result is the breakdown of the service structure, demotivation of honest cadres and an overall collapse in institutional capacities.
The backbone of the executive used to be the officer cadre. An extraordinarily strict and demanding procedure was adopted to fill these slots with men and women fired by a sense of service. It was this trait that enabled bureaucrats of yore to manage some very challenging assignments. Managing disaster and its after-effects, busting criminal rings, ensuring the availability of basic goods especially during emergencies, evolving and sustaining corporations and liaising with the political leadership were the tasks the members of the civil service dealt with. There used to be a clear distinction between the political leadership and bureaucracy. The judiciary worked closely with the bureaucracy to fix routine matters.
Civil servants, including senior police officers, now toe the ’official line’ to maintain steady career paths. The delayed response in the Nazimuddin Jokhio murder case is an example. Anyone standing up for the protection of the environment and wildlife is exposed to the wrath of political carpetbaggers! One hopes the courts ensure justice in the case of the murder of public-spirited professionals and citizens who did not give up their quest for a better natural and built environment.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2021