RECLAIMING THE GREEN

Published January 23, 2022
The green and serene Hill Park | Tahir Jamal /White Star
The green and serene Hill Park | Tahir Jamal /White Star

Spurred by activist citizens, a number of recent court rulings have ordered the demolition of illegal structures encroaching on amenity spaces, including land allocated for public parks. Can greed and corruption be replaced by a greener tomorrow? And what can past successes and failures teach us?

Many living in Karachi associated the city’s Aladdin Park with summer fun. Every year, as the sun scorched the city, scores of Karachiites would make their way to the amusement and water park. Its facade was built to resemble the castle in Aladdin’s Agrabah — a (fictional) city ‘of mystery, of enchantment and the finest merchandise…’ But, it turned out, the merchandise at the Aladdin Mall was being sold at an illegal structure built on amenity land, meant for a public park rather than any commercial activity.

Last summer, some unusual scenes unfolded at Aladdin Park. Instead of cars and vans full of park visitors, large bulldozers made their way past the metal gates, tearing down hundreds of shops. The Supreme Court had instructed that the mall and the neighbouring Pavilion End Club should be demolished.

More recently, on January 7, 2022, a landmark decision by the Islamabad High Court called for the demolition of another club — the Navy Sailing Club. The club had encroached land which, according to the Islamabad Capital Territory Zoning Regulations 1992, was notified as the Margalla Hills National Park area in Zone III.

And just last week the Supreme Court ordered the Secretary Railway to issue an advertisement for tender of the Railway Royal Palm Golf Club in Lahore. Justice Umar Ata Bandial, part of the three-member bench, said that the case was filed before the court in the public’s interest and that state properties were being misused.

We are living in unprecedented times, with similar court rulings continuing to take aim at illegal structures and misuse of land and properties in major cities around the country.

Karachi, in particular, has witnessed many such cases in the recent past. There was the Nasla Tower — the demolition of which began earlier this month — and the Pakistan Air Force-run Falcon Mall — which was quickly reimagined as the Air War College Institute, in order to circumvent its demolition.

Karachi’s mismanagement and lack of planning is a well-established fact. But the recent rulings have given citizens some hope that someone is still protecting public spaces. (Of course, it is still the common citizens who also have to pay a heavy price — be it the shopkeepers who lose their livelihood when their shops are torn down, the workers whose jobs are lost when clubs are shuttered or the people who lose their homes. More on that later).

This back and forth is a part of the city’s history. While builders and various stakeholders have continued trying to misuse the land allotted for parks, often succeeding with support from those in power, the citizens have also fought back.

As a volunteer working with Shehri-CBE, a citizen-run non-government organisation, I have been closely observing the current situation along with the context of everything that has happened before. Here, I present some past and current successes and failures, and what could be the future of Karachi’s parks.

KARACHI’S GREEN SPACES

Frere Hall Gardens | Faysal Mujeeb/White Star
Frere Hall Gardens | Faysal Mujeeb/White Star

Open spaces serve as the lungs for large settlements and are valuable venues for social interaction. For a megacity such as Karachi, whose inhabitants are from various different backgrounds, parks provide a neutral ground to gather and interact.

The grounds of Frere Hall have been a prime example of how parks can bring people across different social, political and religious divides together. This is likely why the citizen response is swift whenever there is any discussion of reimaging the Frere Hall space in any way.

It goes without saying that Karachi, and all of Pakistan, needs more parks. According to the United Nations Development Programme, as of 2017, 90 percent of the country’s youth population had never accessed a playground. The parks of Karachi serve as a space where the youth population of the city can engage with each other and play outdoor games.

Karachi is currently ranked among the worst cities in terms of liveability around the world, and is also deemed highly vulnerable to climate-related disasters. It is estimated that Karachi’s so-called green lung, the Kidney Hill Park, which is 62 acres and is now being developed as an urban forest, will play a significant role in the future to combat the challenges the city is up against.

There’s no arguing with the importance of green spaces. Trees have proven to be a great, cost-effective, method of removing pollutants. Then there are the health benefits of spending time in green spaces.

According to a report by the National Recreation and Park Association, an American non-profit organisation dedicated to the advancement of public parks, a 30-minute walk among trees can lower blood glucose levels far more than the same amount of time spent doing physical activity in other settings. It goes without saying that in Karachi, where every fourth person is diabetic, a healthy park-going culture could be crucial.

For the city-dwellers of Karachi, parks serve as a space where they can breathe in fresh air, relax and let go of the frustrations that come with living in a fast-paced urban centre.

And yet, parks of Karachi are scarce and constantly under threat.

WHEN PLANS FAIL

A bulldozer tears down the Aladdin Mall | APP
A bulldozer tears down the Aladdin Mall | APP

As the famous Woody Allen quote goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. But this idea takes on a new dimension in a city like Karachi, where plans are seldom implemented and the joke seems to always be on the citizens.

For instance, in the master plan of a society in Bahadurabad, over 3,900 square yards were set aside to be developed as a park. This space remained a park for years. But as the commercial and residential value of the area grew, the authority’s interest in maintaining the park reduced. In the span of 10 years, a 16-storey tower was built on park land in the area. Today, only 500 square yards of the park remain, where residents of the tower and the area can go to catch a breath — for now.

Similarly, all cooperative societies present master plans when they are established. Each master plan takes in context all the needs of the residents, including the need for hospitals, schools, parks, open areas, bus routes, roads, and residential and commercial areas. All these plans are penned down. However, like most best laid plans in Karachi, none of these master plans are realised in letter and spirit. Furthermore, citizens cannot even access an original copy of the master plans.

Karachi is currently ranked among the worst cities in terms of liveability around the world, and is also deemed highly vulnerable to climate-related disasters. It is estimated that Karachi’s so-called green lung, the Kidney Hill Park, which is 62 acres and is now being developed as an urban forest, will play a significant role in the future to combat the challenges the city is up against.

As the parks lie abandoned, not demarcated, not notified by gazettes and with blurred boundaries, many with influence and connections have stolen this land in broad daylight. This has been done to several parks, and goes unnoticed because there is no data which the public can access to check the status of each plot.

In 2010, in a breakthrough effort made by Shehri-CBE, the group released a three-volume book set titled Parks and Amenity Spaces of Karachi. The books define the amenity spaces in each district and town as per their existing land use status in the master plan and also presents the status of the parks in 2010.

According to the data, 20 percent of the parks in Gulshan-i-Iqbal scheme 24 had been encroached upon. The percentage of encroached parks stood above 32 percent in the SITE area, at nearly 53 percent in Orangi and nearly 30 percent in Baldia. Things were particularly bad in District Korangi, with nearly 49 percent of park land in Korangi Town being encroached upon, and the number standing at a high 71 percent in Landhi.

The ground reality is different today — 11 years on from when the study came out — but the data gives us a clear look at a pattern of land misuse, which has continued for decades with impunity.

LOOKING BACK

Hill Park | Tahir Jamal/White Star
Hill Park | Tahir Jamal/White Star

In the past too, Supreme Court rulings have saved Karachi’s parks and public spaces. One such example is Webb Ground, a 4.98-acre playfield that was a recreational space for the residents of Tunisia Lines, known as Lines Area. The plot’s central location made it quite valuable. In 2002, the plot was illegally occupied for a ‘cash and carry’ store, with the collusion of city district departments.

A resident of the area filed a case against the agencies which allowed this takeover. However, the case was dismissed after a short time. Ardeshir Cowasjee, the late renowned Dawn columnist, wrote about the playground conversion in his weekly column. In his piece titled ‘A plea to the Lord Chief Justice’, he brought attention of the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, to the details of the takeover, the violations of law and the injustice being done to the children of Lines Area.

The Chief Justice took a suo motu notice of the matter and the case was reopened. After many years, in 2015, the store was demolished and the playground was restored to its original position. The space is not in the best shape today, but it does act as a recreational space for the children of the area.

Then there is Kidney Hill — a 62-acre space situated between the Shaheed-i-Millat and Karsaz roads, that was originally named Falaknuma and later named Ahmed Ali Park, in honour of the celebrated planner behind various land development schemes in Karachi over the 1960s and 70s.

According to a 1969 notification, the area was to be developed as a recreational space, with playgrounds, a club, restaurants and a museum. But such development never took place and, instead, there were multiple attempts to turn parts of the amenity space into residential spaces.

Shehri-CBE and some locals filed a case in the High Court in 1999 and, when the citizens backed out after receiving threats, the organisation filed its own case in 2007. Finally, after a two-decade-long legal battle, Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmad gave a judgment to restore the entire 62-acre park and have all encroachments removed. A private school, many bungalows and structures built on the land were demolished. In November 2021, the government termed the park the ‘green lung of Karachi.’

CONTINUING BATTLES

Ardeshir Cowasjee, the late renowned Dawn columnist, wrote about the Webb Ground conversion
Ardeshir Cowasjee, the late renowned Dawn columnist, wrote about the Webb Ground conversion

And finally, there is the case of Gutter Baghicha — one of the oldest open green areas of Karachi, located along the Manghopir Road. Before Partition, about 1,016 acres were given to the Karachi Municipality by the British government for use as an amenity Sewage Farm. Sewage was pumped across the Lyari River and spread out over the land to decompose, so that the fertile soil could be used for growing fruits, vegetables and fodder.

After 1947, refugees and migrants poured into Karachi, and the first encroachments on the Municipal Garden/ Sewage Plant began. Katchi abadis such as Asif Colony, Zuberi Colony, Hasrat Mohani Colony and Wilayatabad were established. These residential encroachments were regularised in 1983 by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC). Additionally, factories, marble workshops and other commercial encroachments ate up amenity land while the local government looked the other way.

When the master plans of societies are being developed, there is a park and playground in them. And when a citizen buys land in a cooperative society, they also pay development charges. This money is supposed to be used for infrastructure development, including for roads, sewage disposal systems and amenity spaces such as parks, playgrounds, schools and mosques.

“In 1993, when Shehri-CBE filed a case in the Supreme Court, only about 480 acres of the original 1,016 acres were open,” says Roland deSouza, a former chairperson of Shehri-CBE. “We wanted to save the amenity space from any further capture and ensure that it stayed that way.”

In a recent decision, on January 11, 2022, the Supreme Court declared the entire 480 acres of land an amenity space and ordered the cancellation of the allotment of lands to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation Employees Cooperative Society (KMCECS), after declaring the society as illegal.

Once the space allotted for a park (163 acres of the 480-acre land) in Gutter Baghicha will be developed, it will be the biggest park in Karachi.

TAKING OWNERSHIP

A view of the Navy Sailing Club in Islamabad | Twitter
A view of the Navy Sailing Club in Islamabad | Twitter

The residents of a society, by virtue of their buying land in an area/society, have a vested right in the amenity spaces. When they sign up to make a house in a society, they also sign up to enjoy the open spaces in the master plan of that area.

All parks are held by the landowning agencies and the service providers under the Public Trust Doctrine, the principle of which is that certain natural resources are preserved for the benefit of the general public and for future generations.

When the master plans of societies are being developed, there is a park and playground in them. And when a citizen buys land in a cooperative society, they also pay development charges. This money is supposed to be used for infrastructure development, including for roads, sewage disposal systems and amenity spaces such as parks, playgrounds, schools and mosques.

Thus, the parks in housing societies belong to the residents.

The responsibility of maintaining these parks lies within the jurisdiction of KMC and the Parks Department of the municipal corporation of the area. KMC is responsible for handling the responsibility of big parks, such as Bagh Ibn-i-Qasim, Jheel Park, KMC Sports Complex, Safari Park, Askari Park and several others. Meanwhile, smaller parks remain under the jurisdiction of the DG Parks Department of the District Municipal Corporation (DMC).

Mr Zafar Abbas, Director General Parks (East), stresses the need for people to take ownership of the parks. “We develop parks and deliver them to the civilians of the area,” he says. “However, the parks do not stay in that condition for long. The residents of the area throw trash in the park or let it accumulate on the ground.”

He emphasises that the government departments work only a few hours a day and the real charge is with the residents of the area, who can always reach out by visiting the office or by sending in letters.

But some passionate and engaged residents say things are not quite so straightforward. Saleka Anver, a resident of Bath Island, says that she has been reaching out to various local bodies of her area and has received little more than assurances. “I even handed them a park development plan that was designed by university students,” she says.

But implementation remains a challenge, and this will continue to be the case until citizens stand together and call for their fundamental rights to be fulfilled by those who have taken the oath to do so.

THE FLIP SIDE

Demolition of the 15-storey Nasla Tower underway | Fahim Siddique/White Star
Demolition of the 15-storey Nasla Tower underway | Fahim Siddique/White Star

Most encroachments happen out in the open, with approvals passed and powers misused. When there are attempts to correct past wrongs, there is a cost and, more often than not, it is the more vulnerable citizens who have to pay it.

After the Nasla Tower was demolished, Sindh information minister Saeed Ghani expressed regret about the loss of people’s homes. Soon it was announced that the Sindh Government would bring in an ordinance to decide the fate of illegal buildings. The ordinance seeks to “ensure that the property and investments of the people of Sindh is secured, and that they continue to have the confidence with official documents issued by different government organisations.”

But while legalising these illegal buildings might benefit certain citizens, it is not a long term solution. Karachi needs its parks and other amenity spaces; spaces that have been stolen from the people of the city time and again. Unless this stops, the city will be left with no spaces where people can go to take a breather.

The writer is a freelance journalist and a volunteer at Shehri-CBE

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 23rd, 2022

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