The ongoing political unrest in the country has had an extremely adverse impact on the people living in different cities, especially Lahore. Here, different localities recently became no-go areas for days as huge shipping containers dotted the city landscape and obstructed all major roads.
The residents of Model Town, where Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) Chief Tahirul Qadri lives and the Minhajul Quran headquarters are located, suffered in the main. They were besieged from all sides by huge containers that had actually been ‘confiscated’ by the police from transporters and placed there with the help of cranes.
According to a rough estimate, the number of containers placed at different points in order to block the roads was only a fraction of the total confiscated by police on the orders of the government. A large number of these containers were placed on roadsides so that they could be moved to troubled spots at short notice.
Looking at the endless line of these containers, one wondered where they had been arranged from, who owns them and what is the understanding between the government and the owners (of the containers) on their use and the financial compensations involved.
Detailed conservations with the Customs clearing agents, transporters, exporters and importers reveal that the containers are got hold of by means of force by the police and there is hardly any agreement with the owners or users.
It is also learnt that different police officers were given the task of confiscating a particular number of containers, whether they were loaded or empty, and shifting them to designated points.
Agha Iftikhar, President, Customs Clearing Agents Association (CCAA), Lahore says these are mostly shipping containers and they are not manufactured in Pakistan. “They belong to international shipping and cargo companies who rent them out to importers, exporters and transporters [in the country].
“These containers are built as per international standards and can withstand harsh environments, absorb shocks on bumpy roads, brave extreme weathers, preserve perishable goods for considerable time and, on the whole, facilitate the transportation of goods.”
Iftikhar also says the shipping companies rent out these containers to private parties against handsome security deposits. The rent ranges somewhere between $20-$40 a day for the first few days, after which the rate starts to multiply.
The reason for this escalation in rent is that the containers have to be returned after a particular time period for use in shipping goods to other parts of the world.
According to Iftikhar, shipping companies such as Maersk, Berger, MSC, Yangming and COSCO operate locally and charge different rents from their customers. His fear is that “if the habit of confiscating loaded containers continues, these companies may refuse to rent out their containers to Pakistanis.”
Furthermore, the shipping companies will deduct demurrages from the security deposits they already have and all the additional expenses will be passed on to the local businessmen. If any damage is incurred to the containers, the responsibility will be placed on those who hired them.
The containers, says Iftikhar, are usually insured but the insurance companies have no provision on how to cover the damages incurred in the event of a riot or forceful confiscation or misuse by government machinery. “Unfortunately, such hooliganism by state happens only in this part of the world.”
Given this context, the business community also stands to lose. Very few people have an exact idea of what a lot of these containers are carrying. Transporters have raised their concerns and informed the government authorities that these containers carry export and import goods, fragile products, industrial chemicals, petrochemicals including plastic raisins and so on. But despite this update, the government is not cooperative.
Jameel, a Lahore-based transporter, believes the police can easily lay their hands on loaded containers as these are leaving the city dry ports or headed to go-downs. The practice normally followed is that the drivers are signaled by a police officer from the concerned police station to stop and follow them to the designated spots. Upon reaching the spots, the containers are removed from the trolleys with the help of cranes and placed there.
The police, says Jameel, keep on chasing the containers even after the target has been achieved, just to make an extra buck. In Lahore recently, a lot of containers were stopped and then allowed to leave after they paid up an amount (said to be between Rs3,000-Rs5,000).
The Lahore Chamber of Commerce & Industry (LCCI) President Engr. Sohail Lashari has also urged the concerned authorities to only utilise empty containers to block roads as containers filled with flammable material may cause some untoward incident.
A large number of industries use chemicals which if not offloaded in time release gases which can be harmful. However, there is little hope that international shipping companies will give their containers to the government for this strange purpose.
Amid all these reservations, the police officials are not ready to accept that they confiscate containers by force. Instead, an official posted at SP Administration (Lahore) office, claims all the containers were hired on payment of rent to owners.
Agha Iftikhar challenges this claim and says that around 400 containers were confiscated in Lahore alone. Due to this, producers, importers and exporters have refused to move their goods. They are ready to pay the demurrages or fines due to delay in shipments but not willing to leave the merchandise worth millions with the police.
He says that the drivers of trolleys carrying the confiscated containers are under immense duress. These poor people have to stay there and cannot leave the containers as they fear somebody may damage the container or steal the goods.
He also complains that the police have filled up the empty containers with mud so that it becomes difficult for the protestors to move them. “Those who have hired them will have to spend a lot on cleaning these containers before returning them to the owners.”
The management of Afridi United Containers and Trailer Company says that the government has made no agreement regarding compensation against loss of business in any way. “All that the people want is immediate return of containers carrying stocks and they have no hope of getting even a penny from the government in return.”
When a police officer was asked as to why containers were confiscated and placed outside Faisal Town near Barkat Market in order to block the protestors, he replied they were just following the order and that they could not risk their jobs by refusing to comply.