Chain smoking cigarettes staring at Bilawal House across the street, Siddique says, “I used to work with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto,” pulling a photograph out of his drawer of himself with the late Pakistan People’s Party Leader, “now this wall built by the PPP government has ruined my business.”
Siddique, a state agent, says he has lost about ninety-percent of his customer base over the last couple of years, since barricades and containers blocked off Khayaban-e-Saadi eventually leading to the construction of a permanent wall on the space. “Nobody wants to come to this area anymore and cars don’t stop here anymore. I have to actually chase people down to get clients.”
Bilawal House, named after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s grandson and now currently occupied intermittently by President Asif Ali Zardari is located in Clifton Block 3 and has been designated officially as a Presidency. When the President is in town this is where meetings are held, smack in the middle of a residential area and parallel to what used to be one of Clifton’s liveliest commercial areas.
When Siddique looks at the empty road in front of his store he reminisces about the time when the area used to be packed late into the night brimming with outdoor seating for restaurants, “now this road has become so empty that it would make sense to just park cars here and open an automobile business!”
Barrister Naimur Rahman says, “this wall is completely illegal because you cannot block a road in front of public housing without due cause. It is not just obstructing a public highway it is in fact completely blocking it.” Barrister Rehman says the matter can easily brought to court if someone pursues it, but that would mean taking on the ruling party.
The commercial facing Bilawal House used to have a service lane catering solely to the businesses and routes leading towards apartment buildings and homes in Clifton Block 2. Now the portion of Khayaban-e-Saadi that leads down to Marine Promenade by the sea has been blocked off and is solely for official use. This means that the other side of the road that leads to Bilawal Chowrangi has been transformed into a double road, converting a service lane into a full-fledged road.
“Now it is a main double road so all the traffic is fast-track traffic and we don’t get the walk-ins we used to before. Most of the people who patron the businesses here now are residents of the area,” says Noor Abrejo a real estate agent with a business in the area.
“Business is going down day by day and along with that property values have been dropping as well,” says Abrejo.
According to Abrejo’s calculations the property in this area used to go for about twenty to twenty-six thousand rupees per square foot and after barriers were brought in to the area, it has devalued by ten to fifteen percent.
Another real estate agent in the area, Mohammad Bashir echoes Abrejo’s claims saying there were about a thousand shops in the area and only a small fraction of those remain open today.
Bashir says if someone owns a flat in the area worth seven million rupees, they will be lucky if they get rid of it for four million now. He says rental rates have remained stagnant or have dropped in the area despite a rise throughout the rest of Clifton and Defence. “They used to charge .05 % of the full value of a property, now it has dropped to around .02%,” Bashir said.
Bashir’s own business has declined to such an extent that he says that only about fifteen percent of his customer base remains and that his situation is no different from other businesses in the area. A stroll through this area on any weekday reveals a few ‘open’ signs hung on doors surrounded en masse by drawn metal shutters.
“A cloth market was even opening up, but the merchants left once this situation started developing. When someone asks for my advice I tell them honestly that there is no point opening a business here anymore,” says Bashir. He added that he has been trying to sell his business for four months, but hasn’t been able to find someone to take it off his hands.
Bashir and Abrejo both see one upside to the situation as Bashir laughs and says, “there is little to no street crime in the area because of the constant police presence in the area.”
The shopkeepers in the area are burdened by the heavy losses they suffer on a daily basis and add that when there is VIP movement in the area and the president is in town, it becomes even worse.
All of the entry and exit routes become sealed by containers and trucks or tankers, leaving either Ziauddin Hospital Road route open, or the Marine Promenade which is already choked by oil tankers that have flouted a Supreme Court order to vacate the area. Oil tankers have now started parking on Ziauddin Hospital Road.
“Who would want to live here now anyway? Any time there is VIP movement in the area guards are sent into people’s buildings and they are sitting on top of your head on your roof,” said an area resident who does not want to be named. The resident went on to say that they are advised not to sit out on the balconies of their own homes that face Bilawal House because it poses a security risk.
It is not just residents in the area who are facing difficulties, but there are many schools in the area as well.
Taiyaba Malik, owner and principal of a small school in the area moved her school to this area from near the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi over a year ago and invested in a bigger property because her business was expanding and needed to increase her space to accommodate enrollment.
“Parents are constantly complaining about the situation, especially when the President is in town because all the routes get blocked and parents are left driving around in circles trying to find a way to reach the school,” says Malik.
Paying three hundred thousand rupees a month for the school, Malik says she is losing over two hundred thousand of that because some students have left the school and new students aren’t joining because the area doesn’t have the appeal it used to.
“The reason I moved here was because it had such an excellent record of a place for doing business. This may have been made safer for the president but we don’t feel any safer. After the blast in Phase 8 we all worry that we are located next to another man who has a lot of enemies.”
Malik says that she is not ready to close down her school because she has invested too much into the venture but says she is looking forward to the day that this is no longer the presidency.
Real estate agents in the area estimate that about eighty percent of the bungalows that are situated on the same side as Bilawal House have been bought up by the government, but there is no official figure to back the number of homes purchased or who the buyer is.
Abdul Sami Khan of the Clifton Residents Association says, “many homes have been sold on the Clifton Block 3 side where Bilawal House is. What other choice are people going to have? If friends come to visit, their cars are constantly checked by security.” Khan added that a year ago residents approached the City District Government Karachi and the Chief Minister Sindh but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
A resident of Block 3 who has sold his home but wishes not to be named says, “yes I sold my home and have nothing to grumble about as far as the price of the home is concerned. What was worse was that the entrance to the masjid over there has become completely blocked.”
The District South authorities have washed their hands of any responsibility for the building of the wall on Khyaban-e-Saadi saying that they are not the responsible authorities and they don’t know who is responsible for the building the wall.
Sharmila Faruqi, advisor to the Chief Minister of Sindh says that the wall has caused inconveniences for the people of the area but, “people should be thankful for the wall because it is extra security and it’s for free.” She added that she inaugurated a new business in the area and reiterated that businesses continue to open and close in the area. She advised that if it is causing too much inconvenience to residents and business owners, they can take the matter to the courts.
Amber AliBhai from the NGO Shehri says, “is anyone going to bother the Supreme Court to take a suo moto notice on this illegal wall when it won’t be implemented? Nothing will be done about this until the people take pick-axes and tear it down themselves.”
Residents and business owners in the area are not optimistic about business taking a turn for the better and traffic jams because choked routes have made it tough for residents to happily call this area home.
People in the area feel that as long as this government is in power they have no choice but to sit and wait.
Mohammad Bashir defiantly takes dramatic license when comparing the situation to that in East Germany, “The day the government changes we can bring down this wall. But if the Berlin wall can fall, then so can this one.”
*Siddique is a pseudonym
Edited version published in The Express Tribune on March 26, 2012