Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim, Karachi’s largest urban park, sprawling over 130 acres, has been in the news alright. The latest bit of news was that the Sindh High Court (SHC) suspended the operation of the provincial government’s notification handing over Karachi’s largest public park to the estate giant Malik Riaz for Bahria Town. Till the next hearing, this notification shall remain suspended.
The reactions against the idea of the Bagh being taken over were mostly emotional. Yet, few noticed that the park had been dying since the last few years, bit by bit, with every fading tree and plant, and especially with the closing of the main entrance. One year ago, even the battery and UPS of the big clock in the Bagh were stolen. The number of those frequenting it dwindled over the years. Whether Bahria Town takes it over or not, the fact is that Karachiites are paying a price for the ‘development’ in the megacity with the shrinkage of public places.
Worse still is the Karachiites’ aching nostalgia that comes with it. Where once there was Playland, Aquarium, and the main entrance of the Bagh, is now a void.
A resident of this area says that he has seen the so-called development happen overnight as the entire area was well and truly encroached upon. “In the evenings, the Bagh used to be packed with youth, children and families. This park was the most well-lit part of the entire Clifton area. It used to be open almost till midnight,” he says, echoing the memories of many city-dwellers. “The weather would be cool in the evenings close to Karachi’s famous seafront. Standing in the bandstand and looking out at the sea was a fantastic experience,” he reminisces about the evenings spent at the park with his family.
Trees would provide shade to people and encourage them to flock to it even during daytime – the footfall was in the thousands. There was a mosque where visitors could go to pray, and there were foodstalls outside.
“The park had nice horticulture. Plants were shaped as animals. All of that faded. The grass used to be green; now it’s just barren sand over there,” he regrets.
Many public events, such as the centennial celebrations for the renowned poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz in 2011, were held there as the huge park grounds could accommodate large numbers of visitors.
The park has seen better days.
For columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha, however, this sudden wave of emotions seems too little too late. “Many folks don’t say or do anything about a problem, but suddenly spring to action if that problem is being solved through means they do not agree with.”
He thinks the Bagh has been in doldrums for quite a while now. “Yet, none of the politicos or members of the civil society making such a hue and cry of it being handed over to Malik Riaz did anything whatsoever to better the plight of this once spectacular park”.
The deterioration of the park did not happen overnight. For years, its main entrance was adjacent to where the Bahria Icon Tower looms today. When the construction of the skyscraper began, the main gate of the park became the entrance point for the site office. As a result, the gate was closed down. With the construction of an underpass, the Kothari Parade access points changed as well.
The resident, disgruntled at how the limited accessibility restricted visitors, holds the alteration responsible for changing the traffic flow: “Public transport could no longer collect passengers because the Abdullah Shah Ghazi Mazaar entrance was also changed to the side.”
“Now a majority of the buses pass by the mazaar’s new entrance, which is in the side lanes,” he explains. “Once this happened, the government failed to maintain the park.”
The other entrance to the park is the one which faces the sea. There is very limited public transport on that route and since a vast majority of visitors were ordinary people travelling in buses, the numbers began to drop. Having to walk long distances, and parking problems for those using personal vehicles made it more discouraging.
One of Karachi’s most diehard chroniclers, Ghazi Salahuddin, says he had been observing the deterioration of the Bagh, and feels this was neglect with an agenda. “It’s not just about this Park; it’s about Karachi as a whole. This city’s civic life has been plundered. From public spaces to transport to garbage collection – the government is not performing its civic responsibilities,” says Ghazi, dismayed at the bad condition of places such as Qasim Bagh. “These shared spaces are so precious. Karachi’s cultural life has also been effected by neglecting them,” he says, and adds that whenever he visits Lahore, he feels Karachi is no longer the city of lights, but it is Lahore now.
Whether this disrepair is because the inflow of visitors decreased or was it done by design is debatable, the resident thinks. “It would be silly to assume that residents of the high-rise would want a view of a park in shambles. When the entrance of the mazaar and park was changed, it warded away ordinary people. Who would want ordinary people around such prime, expensive real estate property?” he asks.
Journalist and tv show host, Zarrar Khuhro feels that Karachi does have precedents of public-private partnerships, and that is not always a bad thing. “An example is how Asim Jofa has used the Do Talwar roundabout for his advertisements, but then he has also maintained that area well and in fact improved it.”
His worry, however, is deeper than just one park. “Public spaces are shrinking in Karachi, especially for the lower and lower-middle class. A city is held together by public spaces.”
Khuhro also says that in Karachi, the rise of gated communities and the disappearance of shared spaces is resulting in social silos. “Playland, Aquarium – that’s all gone. Development should be done, but must be done responsibly, keeping the character of the city in mind.”
He also comments that the stake of Bahria properties in Karachi raises questions, “considering that regulations have been circumvented and even broken to facilitate these properties”.
If Karachiites are getting another chance at utilising this park for the benefit of citizens, then as Paracha suggests, more should be done to maintain Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim while it’s still there.
This is an updated version of the article that was published in The News on Sunday on April 09, 2017