The city of Karachi was once rated as one of the best and cleanest cities of Asia. Its streets were cleaned every morning and garbage collected. It was a city where buses and trams transported the public, maintaining their dignity. It was a city where Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Hindus intermingled freely and lived in harmony, government-run educational institutions and hospitals offered one of the best education and healthcare facilities in the region. Well-maintained parks, play-grounds and community centres were the pride of every neighbourhood of this city where sports constituted an essential part of the school curriculum.
Karachi was the favourite destination or stop-over for the crew of all major international airlines touching its soil -where crews would check in and throw their bags to relax on the sandy beaches or catch crabs in the warm waters of Keamari.
In those times, the City Mayor and elected councillors were the proud owners of the city; and the City Mayor was ranked as the No 1 citizen of the City and respected as such.
In 2019, however, the city of Karachi is rated as one of the dirtiest cities of Asia where its residents have to negotiate their way through heaps of garbage and flowing gutters; commuters are herded inside and made to sit on the roof top of buses, private sector has by and large taken over the education and healthcare, leaving behind the poor with pathetic educational and healthcare set-up in the public sector to live with. By and large, a great number of members of Parsi and Goan/Anglo-Indian Christians have migrated to North America and Europe and Hindus to India. It is in this city where parks, play-grounds and community centres have been usurped by land and building mafia.
Sport is no longer an essential part of the school curriculum and the school and college playgrounds have been converted into buildings to create more classrooms. A child no longer walks into his house with a hockey stick, a cricket bat or a tennis or squash racket. With this denial to the budding youth of the nation, Pakistan's excellence and leadership in these sports is also a history.
Only very few international airlines now serve Pakistan and the overnight stay of crews in Karachi is avoided.
The once strong office of the Mayor of Karachi and its council gradually lost their relevance and voice as successive provincial assemblies deprived these two institutions of city ownership.
No city in the world has undergone so much of degradation in its demographics and ambience in so short a time as Karachi has. Bringing Karachi to this pathetic state is the collective failure of the political leadership at provincial and council levels, the federal and provincial bureaucracy and above all the failure of civil society of Karachi, with the exception of SHERI, an NGO, that has put up a brave fight against the wrongs.
Karachiites, who have witnessed the glorious period of this city, reminisce about their experiences with a hope that someone would ultimately help restore the past glory of this city of teeming millions. Their prayers seem to have been heard as the institution of higher judiciary has come to their rescue.
To start with, the PTI government took the decision to dismantle all encroachments on public land. Thousands of acres of public land was retrieved in Islamabad and Punjab. Sindh also retrieved its land from encroachments. Commendable was the removal of encroachments from around the historic Empress Market and after five decades one could enjoy the view of its original structure from all the four sides.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan in its historic and unprecedented judgment ruled that the city must be restored in accordance with its master plan formalised 40 years ago.
This means all parks, playgrounds, civic amenity plots and even public roads encroached or unlawfully converted for commercial or residential use have to be vacated for public use.
As expected, there is dogged resistance from vested interests in this regards and this is where the role of the civil society of Karachi would be put to test to counter the same in order to avail a one-time opportunity of restoring the past glory of this city - at least some part of it.
The civil society can play a big role and there are many success stories. The Model Town in Lahore was built in the 1930s and 25 percent of its total land was carved out for parks and play grounds - each block having its own parks and play grounds. Today, after over 80 years not an inch of any park or play-ground has been usurped or encroached upon, although there have been many attempts by the society's management to commercialise part of it. The residents and civil society have always frustrated the designs of vested interests. This phenomenon did not happen in Karachi where new housing societies like PECHS and many more established in early 50s under the charter that the management and control of these society would always rest with the residents - being the true stakeholder. These rights were soon forfeited by the provincial government and the charter scrapped. The Supreme Court may consider restoring the original character of these societies.
One Sunday morning, this writer drove through the main areas of the city. It was heartening to note that the city still possesses the treasure of old heritage buildings though many of these are in pitiable condition - the historic Kaliqdina Hall, the Mereweather Tower, Empress Market and Boulton Market, KPT House and scores of private buildings. The Supreme Court may consider giving an appropriate ruling to ensure protection of these heritage sites.
No city in Pakistan possesses so much of heritage as Karachi does but there have been little or no effort to attract foreign tourists to this city.
The city of Lahore conducts a number of daily city tours of its heritage buildings and sites in a double-decker traditional red bus which has gained tremendous popularity among Pakistanis and foreign visitors. Karachi has five times more to offer. The best way to preserve these treasures is to open them to public and in the process earn some revenue and restore city's traditional image.
However, the challenge is to ensure the implementation and sustainably of the reforms and courts' rulings. Here again the civil society has to play an effective rule to ensure the implementation and sustainability of reforms.
(The writer is former President Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry)