They would blow ‘natives’ out of cannons at Saddar’s Empress Market, I learnt in literature class from teacher Faiza Kazi at St Joseph’s Convent High School when I was a student in the 1980s. Once, in Empress Market’s white tile meat section, my father decided to demonstrate how biology worked. He unhooked a pair of goat lungs with the windpipe still attached and blew hard into it to inflate them—much to the horror of the butcher.
“People go to Hyperstar now, but the poor can’t go there with their dirty chappals,” says Yezdi Burjor Sethna, who runs the famous BD Sethna grocery store inside Empress Market. “Empress Market is a place where all sorts of people can come.”
And so, when the government decided to rip out all the shops around Empress Market in the first week of November to make way for a pedestrian zone, I thought of what Yezdi had said. Who was this all for? What was going on?
I can connect the dots but the true picture of the grand plan will only emerge in the months and years to come. For now, let me just go with what is on the record.
I believe this story starts a decade ago, when the Pakistan Peoples Party won the elections and came to power. Shortly around the time the PPP took the reins of the Sindh government, party chief Asif Ali Zardari issued orders for what he said should be “Karachi’s vertical development”. This information emerged in 2009, a year later, when Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) chief Manzoor Kadir told APP that the president had issued directives in April 2008 for planning to start.
The idea was to consult Karachi’s greatest names in architecture and town planning. The KBCA asked them to give recommendations on a law it wanted to make for high-density zones. The argument went like this: Karachi has a housing shortage and land is limited, so just like world-class cities, it should also densify or build upwards in the shape of high-rise flats.
Two years later, the Sindh Assembly passed this law in the shape of the Sindh High Density Development Board Bill on May 31, 2010. And after the governor assented to it on June 20, it was published as the Sindh High Density Development Board Act, 2010. Angry members of the Institute of Architects of Pakistan held a press conference to go public that their recommendations had not been followed. They said that the law meant anyone could build a skyscraper anywhere in Karachi.
Meanwhile, there were other developments around Karachi. By 2013 there was talk of an underpass or flyover being planned at Hotel Mehran. It was completed by 2015 and named the Nusrat Bhutto underpass. It leads straight into Saddar. It passes Bahria Opal 225, for which work was well underway by December 2013.
There was more law-making by 2014. The Sindh Assembly passed the the Sindh Special Development Board Act, 2014. This was by far the most interesting piece of legislation. It set up a board that would “facilitate and undertake low-cost housing schemes, rehabilitation of katchi abadis, slums areas, gothabad schemes, multi-stories and high rise buildings in the Province of Sindh”. This law facilitated the Association of Builders and Developers (ABAD) when it came to building high-rises in areas where there were slums.
It would consider ABAD proposals submitted through the Sindh Building Control Authority, which approves building permits. It said it would appoint developers from ABAD members to build low-cost housing for the poor. Bahria Town Pvt. Ltd. is a member of ABAD.
On another front, also in 2014, the Sindh government went to the World Bank with the outcome that the Bank started work on a diagnostic report on Karachi. (The World Bank had not really worked in Karachi city ever since the fiasco of it recommending privatising its water supply in the 1990s. The courts struck it down after civil society protested). With the Karachi diagnostic report, the Bank went about doing its homework on what the city’s problems were and what could be done to fix them. Over roughly two years, from 2014 to 2016, the Bank “conducted a set of rapid assessments … as part of a broader technical assistance to develop a multisector approach for city transformation”. What emerged is the report: Transforming Karachi into a Livable and Competitive Megacity A City Diagnostic and Transformation Strategy.
On page 34, I found the words “downtown rejuvenation”.
The diagnostic report led the Bank (through 2016 and 2017) to develop a concept for a Karachi Neighbourhood Improvement Plan or KNIP. It talks about spending $100m “to improve livability and inclusiveness in selected areas in Karachi City”. The Sindh government would put in $12m and would take a loan of $86m from the International Development Association for 25 years.
In one of the Bank’s appraisal documents, which lays out the reasoning for the KNIP, it says on page 11 of 53 that “the proposed project serves as a strategic entry point for reengagement by the Bank and a building block for a long‐term partnership in Karachi. First, the project aims to demonstrate the importance and validity of an inclusive process for neighborhood improvements, by financing highly visible but low‐cost public space enhancements through a collaborative process”.
It supported a “quick wins” operation with a “fast preparation timeline and high‐visibility interventions to strengthen confidence”. The plan was to spend $42m on ‘Saddar Downtown Area Revitalization’. Other parts of KNIP involve Malir and Korangi.
The document says that it anticipates that “involuntary resettlement” will be involved. “Because these works are likely to affect the livelihoods of several people—owners of roadside shops, mobile vendors, and sellers in temporary markets—OP 4.12, Involuntary Resettlement, has been triggered.”
By June 15, 2017 the World Bank had gone public with KNIP, hoping that it would benefit almost one million residents, business owners and commuters “by improving living conditions in the Saddar, Korangi and Malir areas of Karachi”.
The next day, World Bank Country Director in Pakistan Patchamuthu Illangovan had tweeted a video of the bank’s Sohaib Athar talking about KNIP.
Up until then, and indeed as of the time I was writing this, there was no map to be seen of this KNIP on the WB website.
In September 2017, the park next to Empress Market had been redone roughly a year after the chief minister had taken notice of it. The 134-year-old Jehangir Park was given a massive aviary and Chinese dinosaurs. It got an entrance fee.
By October 2017, at the annual Karachi Conference, the public got a first look at the Saddar revitalisation plan. Architect Hafeez Habibi of CG Consultants Group was asked to present it as he was the consultant. At the conference, as he went through the slides, he talked about a “revitalised common man’s culture of street shopping”.
“The entire Saddar should be oriented to street hawkers,” he said. The CG design proposed pedestrianized zones. It included bus terminals to encourage traffic to move away from Saddar. “We must plan for encroachments, provide for hawkers along those terminals. There will be decentralization of hawkers they will go to those areas.” He showed slides of all the drawings.
By the time 2018 had rolled around, some other work had started in Saddar. Right opposite Empress Market, just as Hafeez Habibi’s plan had showed, construction started on a food street on Mir Karam Ali Talpur Road. Roads leading into Saddar were recarpeted and new sewage lines were laid.
In March, CM House posted videos of the launch of the KNIP.
In October, Chief Minister House issued press statements about how Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah was finalising the Karachi projects with World Bank Pakistan head Patchamuthu Illangovan. The press statement says it was a “follow-up meeting”. No details were given on the KNIP.
And then, in the first week of November, the demolition squad arrived and razed everything around Empress Market. In a press statement, on November 20, CM Murad Ali Shah said that after removal of “encroachments” from the surroundings of Empress Market, it had emerged in its original shape. “The areas which have been cleared [from encroachment] must be made neat and clean,” he said.
The latest development came on Thursday, Nov 22, when ABAD members protested on Shahrah-e-Faisal in front of the KWSB office near Awami Markaz. They said that the water board was not giving them no-objection certificates for new water connections for the last nine months. They said that the Supreme Court had directed the SBCA to only give the go-ahead on construction after the NoCs come through from the utilities. Experts who have been following Karachi’s growth have always expressed concerns that unless there is reform and repairs, the water board will not be able to supply more and more construction.
Since 2008, I watched these events unfold and I kept taking notes. I interviewed bureaucrats, architects, conservationists, and spoke to the people who worked at Empress Market. I kept asking questions. Was this a big plan for the gentrification of Saddar? Who was this food street for? Are the people who are making these decisions aware of what Karachi historians such as architect Arif Hasan and NED’s Dean Dr Noman Ahmed have been saying about urban interventions and public space? Has money been set aside in the WB loan for the restoration of the heritage buildings in Saddar? Where is the Heritage Committee in this picture? Who has a right to the space around Empress Market? What is heritage? Why do we need to go into debt to fix up Saddar?
And is it true that Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah’s brother is Sajjad Ali Shah, who works as a Development Effectiveness Manager with the World Bank?
It isn’t there any more, but if you go round the corner from Empress Market, opposite Rainbow Centre, you could get a mean cup of kehva at the dhaba. It’s right next to the alley where they sold kites, mortars and pestles. I used to buy cold-pressed almond oil here too. And peas from Malir’s farmers. One of my prized possessions is a medieval wooden lemon squeezer. I’m wary of nostalgia. But there was something about going to Empress Market that made me yearn for a past in this present. It was a space that straddled many worlds. I felt it when I bumped into hurried Chinese folk buying baby pak choi, or when I passed the one-legged Afghan man who lost his limb in the war. It was in the sari-clad women selling spices on the footpath in front. It was in the nun I’d spot buying a pumice stone.
Perhaps the new pedestrianized zone will be beautiful and clean and well-lit. Perhaps people from around the city will enjoy themselves here and like it. Perhaps a big mall will come up next to Empress Market with central air-conditioning. Perhaps tall flats and apartment towers will go up. Perhaps Zamzama coffee shops will open kiosks here and sell us 325-rupee lattes. Who knows how it will change. I can only put the dots down today.
Note: The image of the man standing on rubble at Empress Market was taken from Twitter. It is the work of photojournalist Arif Mahmood of White Star. He has kindly given permission.
For anyone interested in the history of Empress Market, please read a paper by Tania Soomro and Dr Mohsin Ali Soomro here