23 September 2010

A glimpe into how the city works

City pages come and go, but it's rare to find a story that reveals to you how the a city like Lahore is actually run. Ali Raza has, for quite a while, been handling the environment beat at The News' Lahore office. I've been following him for some time now because he has the knack of finding real environmental stories where everyone else doesn't go beyond "cleanliness drives".

Ali Raza seems to have shifted beats because this piece today is about a the construction of a parking plaza behind Lahore's civil courts. Either way, it's one of those newspaper reports that, if you read between the lines, speaks volumes of how the business of government and urban planning is run in this city.

ETPB, commissioner tussle over parking plaza
By Ali Raza
The News, 23 September 2010 - Lahore Section

THE Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) and the Lahore division commissioner have locked horns over the construction of a parking plaza as the board wants to complete the project while the commissioner terms it a security risk.

Sources in the ETPB said the board wanted to resume construction of a multi-storey building at one of its vacant plots on Dev Samaj Road while the Lahore division commissioner was not allowing it. The plot measuring 3 Kanal, 7 marlas and 58 Sq Ft bearing Khasra number 2486 belonged to Sir Dayal Singh College Trust and the property vests in the ETPB.

It is situated adjacent to the office of the Lahore division commissioner while other important buildings around this property are Punjab Civil Secretariat, Civil and Family Courts Complex (Aiwan-e-Adl), ETPB Head office, LDA’s building and Election Commission of Pakistan.

The plot in question is located behind the Lahore Civil Courts and sort of right between the head office of the ETPB and office the Commissioner, Lahore Division. This used to be where the DCO used to sit (the DCO has been moved to the Magistrates Court, which is where the old Deputy Commissioners office used to be).

A couple of years ago, when it was run by Mushraraff appointee General Zulfiquar, the ETPB auctioned off (or tried to auctions off some the properties in its portfolio. Remember, the ETPB was established after Partition to hold in trust all the lands and properties left behind by Hindu and Sikh migrants who, having overnight become non-Muslim community in a new Muslim country, thought it better to pull stumps and leave for the newly created India. Most of these properties were later transferred by the ETPB to Mulsim migrants who had abandoned their homes and their lives to come live in the newly created Pakistan but many, especially properties themselves dedicated for religious or charitable, were left for the ETPB to manage, as trustees, in furtherance of the wishes of the founders of those trusts and charities.

Because it manages so many properties of Hindu and Sikh religious significance, the ETPB has earned the nickname "Hindu Auqaaf" and which is why, the Diyal Singh Library in Lahore falls under the administrative management of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

All this is not to say that the folks over at the ETPB don't have a good nose for real-estate. In the mid-naughties (Is it fair to call this past decade of the 21st Century "The Naughties"?), when property markets shot through the roof, these folks must have persuaded the ETPB to get on the bandwagon. Dozens of notices were issued seeking expressions of interest from contractors and real estate developers in the many properties the ETPB has peppered all over the country. One of these properties was this little plot between the ETPB head office and what was then the office of the DCO. Given the parking and congestion problem caused by having a school, the DCO's office, the Civil Courts and the Lahore Development Authority Complex crammed together, someone must have thought a parking stand would be a great idea. For the ETPB, it was a great idea: It would raise revenue from the auction of the plot and then earn money through a toll-sharing arrangement with the parking thekaydar.

Sources in the EPTB said that the plan of constructing a 12-storey parking plaza on this plot was the brainchild of the former ETPB Chairman General Zulfiqar. They said construction on this plot was started during his tenure and a basement was completed.

After the general elections in 2008 the new government removed General Zulfiqar from the seat and ongoing construction work on the structure was stopped. Sources said the ETPB’s new chairman, Asif Hashmi, put the project on his top priority list and resumed the construction work, which was stopped by the town municipal administration Data Town on the pretext that building plan of the plaza was not approved.

Now here's the interesting thing. The ETPB undertook its auction and development plans without consulting any local government of LDA bye-laws. The law is clear: You can't just build a plaza without authority, and the DGB Town Administration had the authority to issue the order directing them to stop construction.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm all for having something relieve parking congestion. I just don't think transforming trust property that was dedicated for religious or charitable purposes into a parking lot is the job of the ETPB; in fact it looks terribly close to breach of fiduciary duty). Also, the prohibition by the DGB Town must have had some element of wanting to charge "regularization fees" in order to turn their back on the bye-laws. This isn't surprising. It happens almost everywhere else.

What's interesting is that a local government took on the federally controlled ETPB.

Sources said the ETPB chairman took up the matter with the Punjab government and according to Asif Hashmi, Punjab Assembly Deputy Speaker Rana Mashud told him that Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif had shown his consent to allow the ETPB to construct the plaza.

Note how the new Chairman of the ETPB went to the Government of Punjab (my guess is that he must enjoy some patronage from the PPP federal government which gives him access to the PPP partners in this Government of Punjab's coalition government) and not to the DGB Town Administration. Under the law (that Punjab Local Government Ordinance, 2001), it's very clear that zoning and spatial plans are the sole jurisdiction of Town Administrations. Also what's interesting is that if one asks the Government of Punjab about building permission in Lahore, final authority apparently comes from the Chief Minister himself. That should tell you quite a lot about how the city and province is run.

However, Lahore Additional Commissioner Mirza Mahmood-ul-Hassan, on August 20, 2010, sent a letter captioning “Security threat-under construction building for car parking at Dev Samaj Road, Lahore” to the chairman, ETPB. The letter was also sent to principal secretary to the Punjab chief minister, Lahore DCO, DO (Spatial Planning and Commercialization), Lahore and other authorities concerned. After giving the technical details and ownership of the plot, the letter states, “Construction of parking plaza or any such building to be used for commercial purpose is likely to be a permanent hazard to the security of surrounding government offices.

Therefore it is not appropriate to construct any such building at the risk and cost of security of surrounding important government buildings.”

The local government does not envisage the office of Commissioner or Additional Commissioner. They are officers appointed under the Land Revenue Act, 1967 and don't have anything to do, technically, with the urban planning of the city. But the way it's working here now, the Chief Minister needed, when he took power, to control the development expenditure of elected local government Nazims. This he did by (i) waiting for the tenure of the elected representatives to expire and then; (ii) making Commissioners unofficial overseers of any development project in excess of Rs. 200 million.

But anyway, this is where the knives come out. The Commissioner's office issues notice to ETPB saying that "security" is the reason they can't build the parking plaza. Now I can't tell you how often "security" get bandied around to justify strong armed tactics. Everyone know "security" is just an excuse to stop something from happening. In this case, its stopping the ETPB from constructing a plaza on land that it owns. Of course, there's no law that authorizes public officials to affect property rights using "security" as an excuse.

The additional commissioner concluded the letter by saying that in view of the above, he was directed to request that the plot in question may be leased out to the provincial government for extension of government offices at a negotiated price.

Now this is hilarious. I had this client who was a member of the Model Town Residents Association. That's not the Model Town Society, but an independent association of Model Town residents who, it seemed, couldn't get elected to office in the Model Town Society. Anyway, they always have a gripe about how the Model Town Society is basically running the place right into the ground. Once I got a letter - said client copies me on all his correspondence with the Model Town Society - complaining about how the Model Town Society had allowed private individuals to operate billboards. "Billboards are illegal in Model Town", raged my client's letter, "and moreover, the Model Town Society was charging less than market rates for it."

So, not only is it wrong, but you're not charging enough for it. What chutzpah.

It's exactly the same for the Additional Commissioner. After telling the Chairman of the ETPB that they couldn't use the plot to build on because of the security situation, the Additional Commissioner's asking whether the ETPB would auction the plot to them. If what looks like a duck and walks like a duck IS a duck, then this is highway robbery.

Seems none of the legal teams for the ETPB Additional Commissioner are familiar with the rigorous procedure to be followed before the ETPB can auction it's land.

ETPB Chairman Asif Hashmi while talking with The News accused that the Punjab government through the City District Government Lahore and its officials was trying to take possession of this prime land but the ETPB would not allow this ‘daylight robbery.’ He said the government machinery was using various tactics, including arrests of labourers and contractor of the site to pressurise the ETPB to lease out the land to it. He said the ETPB was a federal department and Punjab government could not take possession of the land without the consent of the ETPB and federal government.

So I said highway robbery and the Chairman used the phrase "daylight robbery". Same difference. But leaning on labor; that's extortion.

Answering to a question about the letter of additional commissioner who termed construction of the plaza a security risk, he said the presently abandoned site was a security risk and anyone including terrorists could hide in it. He said rainwater had filled the basement of the plaza which was a security risk for the nearby buildings. He said another real security risk outside the Secretariat was the parking of all kind of vehicles on main Multan Road outside Aiwan-a-Adl. “Why the government is not taking any measures to remove these present security risks,” he questioned. He said the ETPB wanted to construct a 12-storey plaza on the land out of which basement of the plaza and two floors would be used for parking while flats and offices would be constructed on the rest of the floors. When contacted, the Lahore division commissioner was not available for comments.

Another example of hyperbole and prejudice being passed off as knowledge. The "it's dangerous because terrorists could hide in it" argument was used by the Government of Punjab when it cut down some of the trees in GOR-I after building a wall around it. It was the argument they put forward when they ripped the sidewalks out of GOR-I (because terrorists could plant bombs under them!) and to protect their action.