Bagh-i-Benazir

26 Oct 2008

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THE condition of the huge overcrowded Bagh that is Pakistan is, at the moment, not quite that as envisaged by Benazir Bhutto before she was so tragically assassinated.

A foreign perspective

As asked by Enrique Penalosa, the renowned ex-Mayor of Bogota, Colombia, when he visited our city about a month ago, what will our future generations of congested city residents do when they find that we have greedily occupied and converted most of our parks, playgrounds and open spaces? He pointed out the obvious fact that wealth and other assets can be created in future, but how can open spaces and parks be created for the beneficial use of the citizens?

For starters we have severe economic difficulties — plunging foreign exchange reserves, spiralling inflation, and a potential defaulting on our external loan repayment commitments.

Our financial envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary, able banker Shaukat Tareen, flies the national flag of Pakistan whilst conversing with those hopefully to be classified as lenders, indicating that he can commit the country. This, even though the Standard & Poor`s rating has been downgraded to the sovereign debt level of CCC-plus (seven notches below investment grade). At the same time, he says that Pakistan will default `over my dead body`. This is hardly the time to overburden us! He toys with options B and C. He should settle at anything up to option Y, strictly avoiding option Z.

Our ratings depend on how we conduct our affairs. For instance, it has taken the people and the owners of the land over 10 years of arguing in the law courts to try and save 500 acres of parkland in Karachi, population 15 million-plus (Hyde and Kensington parks, London population 10 million, 625 acres; Central Park, New York City population 19 million, 820 acres).

In the 1850s, after Sindh was annexed by the British and the capital established at Karachi, it took many years to install a sanitary sewerage system. Numerous cholera outbreaks ravaged the city up to the end of the century, until a drainage system was installed by James Strachan in 1894. Expansion of the sewerage system and installation of ejector-pump stations to facilitate the gravity flow from all over the town continued into the middle of the next century.

The effluent from the sewerage network was discharged at a treatment plant on Manghopir Road across the Lyari River on a 1,017-acre plot called the Municipal Sewage Farm (Gutter Baghicha). The Handbook of Karachi, 1913 reported that the location, within a short period of 20 years had become `an oasis in the desert and a paradise for insects, birds and naturalists`. The Karachi Guide & Directory, 1915 described the Sewage Farm as a location `where cereals and green fodder and vegetables are grown and sold at a considerable profit to the garden department of the municipality.`

All of this was to change in the decades after the creation of Pakistan. The influx of migrants from India created chaotic conditions and squatter colonies on the outskirts of the city, and Gutter Baghicha was not spared.

In 1993, after some 530 of the 1,017 acres had been swallowed up by various mafias, the government decided to allot 200 acres to the KMC Officers` Cooperative Housing Society, and auction cottage industry plots on 50 acres of Gutter Baghicha. Concerned citizens and area residents, appalled at this proposed desecration of the remaining amenity park space, filed a human rights petition in the Supreme Court. Although the court stayed any action on the plot, the KMC-OCHS surreptitiously tried a number of times to develop the housing site and had sub-leases issued.

Under various town planning laws, a sewage farm is an amenity plot. Amenity plots and spaces are established for the public welfare and common good of all citizens. They cannot be converted or used for private residential, commercial or industrial purposes.

The very concept of establishing a housing colony on an amenity park plot is an anathema, especially in a situation where there is a severe paucity of open spaces, parks and playgrounds for the burgeoning population of this city.

As asked by Enrique Penalosa, the renowned ex-Mayor of Bogota, Colombia, when he visited our city about a month ago, what will our future generations of congested city residents do when they find that we have greedily occupied and converted most of our parks, playgrounds and open spaces? He pointed out the obvious fact that wealth and other assets can be created in future, but how can open spaces and parks be created for the beneficial use of the citizens?

Within a four-mile radius of Gutter Baghicha live about five million lower-income and lower-middle-income residents of Golimar, Pak Colony, Orangi, Baldiya, Garden, Nazimabad and North Nazimabad. They have restricted access to recreation and playground opportunities this leads to frustration and waywardness among the citizens, especially the youth, and culminates in drug abuse, juvenile crime, mental illnesses, social problems, and so forth.

The KMC-OCHS has presented numerous dubious documents in the Supreme Court. A site layout plan of the land leased by the KMC, with about 1,300 plots thereon, was submitted in 1993. A completely different layout plan was submitted in 2006. Last year, a third layout plan was prepared, blatantly contravening the requirements of Karachi Building & Town Planning Regulations 2002 this has been approved by `friends` in the Master Plan Group of Offices of the CDGK.

CDGK officials are charged with a public duty and protection of the public interest. This they cannot do because many senior officials of the CDGK are members of the KMC-OCHS and are parties to the blatant misuse of power. The original allotment is a gross betrayal of public trust.

The NGO Shehri and other concerned citizens have been waging a war for the past 15 years to save this open park space. Public interest litigation, seminars, press campaigns and tours, signature drives, and YouTube presentations (for more details visit www.shehri.org/gutterbageecha/index.htm) have been employed to increase the awareness of the need for parks in this beleaguered city, and to rally support to save what is left of Gutter Baghicha. A citizens` suit is now being heard in the Sindh High Court.

Space precludes a continuation of the woes and background of Gutter Baghicha, but more will follow.

As reported on the front page of the Metropolitan section of this paper yesterday under the heading `Minister vows to build park on Gutter Baghicha land`, a meeting was held on Oct 24 which was predominantly attended by people from Lyari, representing the millions to be affected were this parkland to be lost to them. Cries were heard that the park should be named `Bagh-i-Benazir`, which cries were supported by all present, myself included.

This parkland falls within what was her constituency. She may not have influenced the affairs and policies of Pakistan for as long as the Sun King did for France, but she certainly has a place in the pages of our history (not merely in its footnotes) and in the hearts of millions of this country`s people.

arfc@cyber.net.pk