Jun 13, 2011

Preying on parks

Database of parks, open spaces, and green belts must be notified and made accessible to the public

By Dr Noman Ahmed

A few weeks ago, two fishermen activists were killed in Karachi in cold blood. They were allegedly eliminated due to their involvement in campaigning to safeguard the mangrove forests of the city. And this is just one reflection on the state of environmental issues.

The environmental assets of the metropolis have been under threat. Unscrupulous elements want to transform them into private ventures for commercial benefits. Whosoever tries to question the status is confronted with dire consequences.

It is disappointing to observe that no worthwhile response has been given by the city administration to protect these precious assets and lives of people who raise their voices for saving the environment.

From a historical perspective, it has been established that Karachi was a city with an abundance of parks, playgrounds, open spaces, green belts and peri-urban land allocations for greenery.

Planners for Karachi and various administrators have made periodic contributions to ensure that the city continues to retain a large proportion of spaces under active landscape. For instance, the Karachi Development Plan (1973-85) which was undoubtedly one of the most comprehensive planning exercises done for the city, proposed to conserve all the existing parks with an upgraded landscape status.

A meticulous framework was laid down to incorporate related land uses for horticulture, urban agriculture, green islands and buffer zones. It is obvious that no landscape or horticultural activity can sustain without a corresponding allocation of suitable land for the purpose.

It is saddening to note that during the past three decades, organised attempts have been made by certain quarters with vested interests to encroach upon these previous public assets of the city. In addition, several development projects have affected the status and existence of parks and open spaces.

Road-widening schemes, commonly initiated to increase road-width, have been executed at the expense of trees and road shoulders spaces. This land allocation has been kept for environmental balance, visual aesthetics and ground water re-charging purposes.

One finds that increasing car ownership has forced city administrators to create greater room for vehicles at the cost of trees and pedestrian spaces. Rashid Minhas Road, University Road, Abul Hasan Isphahani Road, Preedy Street, Shahrah-e-Pakistan, and Shahrah-e-Ibne Sina are only a few mentions in this regard.

Organised encroachment of park land and green spaces is also undertaken by clandestine mafias. The campaign of Gutter Baghicha in western part of Karachi is an example. A brave activist, Nisar Baloch, who was actively campaigning to safeguard this vital landscape, was murdered in November 2009.

Office-bearers of a well-known non-governmental organisation were threatened of dire consequences for their public service litigation efforts for protecting green spaces. The incident of Kidney Hill in societies area is an example. Many land use conversions have been done in blatant violation of law.

Foundation-stone of a hospital has been laid on a large piece of land in Block-7, Gulshan-e-Iqbal. Surveys and investigations conducted by Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) inform that more than two dozen plots in formal planned schemes have been illegally grabbed by different interest groups.

A five-acre park/playground plot on Kashmir Road has been converted into marriage gardens. The Webb Ground in the Lines Area is being taken over by a store. The matter has been subjudice. Many neighbourhood parks in North Nazimabad, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Orangi Town and Gulistan-e-Jauhar have been converted into residential plots, commercial high rises and other prohibited land uses.

NGOs, lawyers, and other professionals have made efforts to protect city landscape from encroachment and conversion. Different approaches have been adopted by these people to fulfil the most vital civic responsibility. Dialogue with politicians, administrators and decision-makers can be one aspect to ameliorate the situation.

Experience has shown that activism cannot succeed unless reinforced by mobilised support of the masses and other stakeholders. There are several vital measures that must be initiated without delay. Database of parks, open spaces, green belts and other category of environmental assets must be notified and made accessible to common public.

This shall ensure public scrutiny and consequent public action. The print and electronic media must give wider coverage to violations of land use rights. Times have proved that this is the single most important input to pressurise those going for vested interests. And corporate stakeholders should extend a helping hand through the business clout and financial assistance. With an objective and fearless cadre of public activists, park and green spaces in the city can have a much better future.

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