Chai With Arif Hassan

Chai With Arif Hassan

Issue | 43
Text | Khadija Raza Baig & Maria Aslam
Visuals | Khadija Raza Baig &

From the moment you set your eyes on the house, you know you are in for visual and intellectual treats. A delightfully warm orange wall in the porch beckons you through the low gate, guiding your eye to a well- manicured, simple and elegant garden on the left. A narrow staircase leads you up to the dreamy office chambers where everything is organized and seems to be in place. The walls are lined with bookshelves and photographs; the potent, musty smell of papers, papers and papers add to the aura of the place. 

 We say our grace. There’s a brief exchange of courtesies and introduction before “chai” is declared open. The conversation has no tangent, no agenda, no direction, and floats like summer clouds on a breezy day. The candid conversation is generously sprinkled with wit, and couplets and quotations from a rich, literary repertoire.

 The evening is spent with Mr. Arif Hassan an architect, a historian, a town planner, a much loved grandfather, a caring husband, a bereaved employer (of a recently deceased trusted secretary and companion of thirty five years) and a bemused manager of a domestic employee with high tech communication skills!

 An open ended evening that leads one to more questions…

Cities – urbanity – architecture

I had gone to an executive meeting of the Council of Asian Coalition for Housing Laws. It was a four day discussion, exactly about the questions you’ve raised. A city is formed by many elements which are not in the hands of the planner. Cities grow at their own will. Quotes wistfully: “chhutti huwi aur mausam e bahar main mere dill ka chaman lut gaya!”

This is what has happened to cities. There are three important points to consider in this regard. Firstly, in many cities of south Asia, the local population is in a minority as compared to the immigrant population for example Mumbai, Karachi, New Delhi, Bangkok, and Istanbul. The problem of ownership might get sorted out after three to four generations. Then, although most countries are so called democracies, the politics of ethnicity plays a big role. You will not find the problem of ethnicity in cities like Lahore or Kolkatta. In Bangkok, the red-shirt/yellow shirt issue is between the people from Isan who speak the Laoatian language and are migrants, and the Royalty and the so called aristocracy on the other hand. Kuban says about Istanbul “This is not my city; it is the city of Kurds. Why should I live here?” Another important factor is the demographic shift – this is huge because the rural economy and social structure has changed. It can no longer support extra populations. It can no longer support what I call, a culture of poverty. These determine your city. Third: Concepts of housing and development no longer work because the ownership and the use of land are now dependent on the price of land or the potential price of land or the manipulative price of land. As a result, the managing institutions need money because earlier it was provided to them through other sources of revenue, for their operation. They now finance themselves entirely through the sale of land. Why was KBCA created? So that Karachi’s revenue could go to all of Sindh, so that it could fund massive land development in the interior of Sindh, which is underway. Factors like these are determining cities in your new, liberal world.  

Technology affecting architecture

Technology is making a mockery out of everything. An acquaintance from MIT and I conversed some days ago, and he told me that architecture (as a discipline) has become a thing of the past. The future requires technicians not architects. We both exchanged our points of view. He put in $100 to prove his point, which he said he would put on my tab if he managed to convince me. He gave me line of firms to choose from. We then went through some real estate companies, and saw their projects under construction. We chose a plot of land, contemplated its uses. Having selected the plot for building a house, I gave details about the kind of house I wanted…. rooms, façade etc. He contacted the firm and asked for a rough calculation and estimate. They said it would be in the form of a sketch. We asked for three options, which meant we had to put in $50 more. Within 20 minutes, we had all the details, 3D sketches and designs. They asked us if wanted to pursue it, and we said we’ll consider it.  His point was valid – the house we specified could be constructed without our ever meeting the architect or the contractor and it would all have been done in no time. The blueprint would be prepared through special software. Specifications would have been modified. All we would have to do is speak on the modifications. Why would we need an architect?

Another interesting aspect of how technology is changing the environment for us. When I was at the University of Seattle, I met Akhter Badshah, an Indian architect from Hyderabad Deccan and an old acquaintance. He used to be at MIT but that time he was with Microsoft, heading their education sector, a very special sector. He took me on a tour to show me what they do. “If they succeed in doing what they are doing, you will not need to go to a university,” he said. They were developing an ideal computer with a slim back that could fit into the palm and flip open. Any flat surface i.e. wall, door could be the screen for projection. They have also been successful with translating works from a plethora of languages – their only problem is that they have not overcome the issue of syntax and grammar.  If they manage to overcome this issue, literature in all languages will be available to everybody, anywhere in the world. There is a project that they are working on with the French. France has many small towns and villages with ten, twenty, odd houses, and opening full schools is not really possible. Through these programs, one or two school teachers can teach entire towns and villages. They have made a list of about 80,000 institutions throughout the world where these programs can eventually be used. They are also developing programs for teachers to be able to teach using these methods. Buss….badal gayi dunya! (Behold…the world has changed!) And with this change there is bound to be changes in family structures, changes in gender relations, changes in the concept of a family. Many changes have already begun to happen in our own country too as a result of technological advancement.

Low income housing work

Take Karachi. All the old katchi abadis, (squatter settlements) the low income formal settlements begin four to five kilometers of your old town periphery. Except Landhi and Korangi, nearly all the work areas are within 3-8 kilometers of these settlements, and there is a link between katchi abadis and work areas. The majority of the present katchi abadis are on the outer fringe of the northern by pass. Beyond the Korangi creek is the Rehri-Chashma Goth access. Most of the people who live here are the macheras (fishermen). Non macheras who come here because there is land to occupy find it difficult to live here just like people find it difficult to live off the Northern Bypass. Women find it difficult to work, children cannot go to school, commuting one way takes around two and a half hours etc; basic living amenities are missing. It’s a long story. Because it is cheaper to rent inside the city than live on the outside, it is giving rise to, in Karachi for the first time, a low income rental market. Visit the old katchi abadis close to the city. They build five to seven storey buildings for rental purposes, on their own terms and conditions. This open real estate market is not subject to any rules and regulations whatsoever, I have case studies of people who had bought property here in odd installments and loans because they had no other choice, but are now happy that they purchased it because they didn’t have to go running from one end of the city to the other. You know Khuda Ki Basti. (a romantic notion like many other romantic ideas we had!!!!) People are now leaving Khuda ki Basti and renting out property in places like Shireen Jinnah Colony or Sultanabad or Qayyumabad or Yaqoobabad. They get small flats on upper floors for about 9-10 lacs (1 million) and enjoy their lifestyle. The kids go to school, the wife finds work. On the flip side, however, if their elderly, ailing parents move in with them, they become confined for life to that limited space. There’s hardly any mobility for them. These are realities of life in our city Karachi. 

Karachi: 1947-2018

At the time of partition, the most populated settlements in the Old Quarters around partition were Wadhoomal Quarters, Bohrapir, Ramaswami, Jail Quarters (old jail was near Small Cases Court, where 14 freedom fighters were hanged) and Lyari. After partition, the area around Frere Road has become the most populated area; it includes Jail Quarters, Serai Quarters. This is the area where most of the Delhi walas landed in the October of 1947, around 80,000 of them. Just like Lahore, Karachi was also once a walled city. There were two doors, they were closed down. At the time of partition, the ethnicity of the old town and its adjoining areas were mostly Memon and Gujarati speaking communities. There was a fairly large number of Ismaili people especially in the southern end of the old city where stands the Bara Imambargah and Ismaili Jamat Khana. This road goes from Kharadar all the way to Khajji Bazar. This was the cloth market, and mostly the beoparis (traders) were Hindus. The English developed the western part of the city first and this was Kharadar. The first police chowki was constructed here, and it still exists. Then they developed Bunder Road, and the old quarters like Serai Quarters and Jail Quarters came about after the British conquests. The only thing that existed in the Serai Quarters around that time was the Hindu ashram which later became a temple and still exists. Another place called the Qafila Serai was where Sind Madressah stands today. Karachi was the largest trading center and qafilas or caravans used to come from Afghanistan, Balochistan, Rajasthan; hence the name Qafila Serai.  The names of thaanas of these quarters are still the same. They haven’t changed. Every quarter had a thaana and a councillor. They were appointed and not elected. The head of the thaana obviously was the SHO, who was king! He could do whatever he wanted, like the SHO today. If I am not mistaken, I think we even have the same Police Act of 1864. The Land Acquisition of 1884 or 1894 still in force, and is the major instrument of goondaism under which the government can acquire any land that it wishes to. Under the Land Acquisition Act the state cannot throw anyone out. It has to pay the actual market value of the property plus any damages that the person may incur in the process of the change in land use. It does not affect the owner of the property in any way…..the tenant is the one who suffers. He doesn’t get anything. In the same way, landlords don’t lose anything in such land disputes; the farmer and the herdsman suffer because nothing is in their name.

Mine? Yours? Ours? – pugree tenancy system

Most high-rises in katchi abadis (squatter settlements) work on pugree system. In a pugree system someone part purchases a property. There is no expiry on its validity, and technically is outside the jurisdiction of law. For example I have property worth Rs.10 lacs. (1 million) You are interested in acquiring it. I say I will rent it out of Rs: 20,000/- per month. If you take it on pugree, I will adjust the amount – it means you as the tenant, will deposit a chunk of money upfront and the monthly rent will become less. The rent, however, is subject to annual increases. The agreement in reality has no legal entity but like many such disparities that don’t have a legal basis, it has acquired a legal entity simply because of mainstream practice. This practice is conducted on a large scale and has become a popular mode of acquiring property. The status of the occupant under a pugree agreement depends upon what has been negotiated.

Correlation & linkages between the Antiquity Law & Conservation Act

I have not been able to find or understand any correlation between the two till date. There are four to six ambiguities that I can spell out. They are not too difficult to understand. The Conservation Act and Antiquity Law are two separate entities. At times, it becomes unclear as to which building comes under the Conservation Act and which falls under the Antiquity Law. To overcome this, a new act is in the drafting process. In this draft, both the laws have been coupled together, and it will be called the Conservation and Antiquity Act or something like that. Another aspect of disagreement is these buildings have the same by- laws as non-conservation buildings. There are no special by-laws. There are no zoning regulations. Parsi Colony has been declared as heritage without any zoning regulations, which is grave injustice to the area.  Another issue has come out very clearly after the case of SILKBANK – the aspect of urban design.  If a heritage area has to undergo a change in all respects, there has to be some interventions of urban design. SILKBANK is an old and beautiful building. The façade, those exterior walls, they go back to 1910. It’s a beautiful building and it’s a heritage building. Right next to is a new 20 storey building. Mind you, I am not against it – my point is that if you allow such buildings to be constructed unchecked, this will set a trend in which, an entire precinct will develop, the result will be catastrophic. Such construction has to be subject to a larger urban design exercise as to what is the vision for this area. The most important design exercise in my opinion is to have an aesthetic committee. The biggest weakness in the law is, in my way of thinking, protecting the same types of buildings in a ruined state, when you have entire clusters of that period which are intact. For example in Khori Gardens there are 4 or 6 buildings which are listed, when infact all of Khori Gardens precinct should be listed. It’s a case of area conservation instead of just a few buildings. It creates an ambience. Another such example is Ramaswami area. But the moment you list a full area, there are problems. How do you fight rising land value of that building? How do you protect those buildings even after you’ve listed them? Here zoning regulations and by laws have to be made, they don’t exist as yet. Once they are prepared, then only you can decide how you can make them economically viable.

Conservation and heritage laws and its awareness

Forget about the law. There is something much more than that, something that needs to be informed and shown to the children. It is called history. Each era, each period in time has its own style of architecture. Some buildings and structures are very beautiful for different reasons. The younger generation needs to be informed of their heritage and culture, and they have to take ownership for it. They have to be informed how their ancestors lived and that has paved the way for where they are today. Once the masses are informed of the importance and relevance of history, heritage and culture, then they can be taught about laws that protect such environments.

Importance of research, writing and dialogue

It is most crucial now, more so than ever before – the need for research, its availability and to develop an interest in it. Writing is important. We have to somehow or the other break the monopoly of Western academia on our thinking, which I can’t see happening. It is sad to see that I, and my acquaintances from all over the world, don’t get the support for dialogue, to sit down together to deal with larger issues. The World Bank will not provide even a rupee for such programs. Apart from the Indian government, no other governments provide any kind of support. Look what happened to SDPI. It was modeled on the Center of Science and Environment, Delhi. The purpose was to provide research for the government, who would program the entire exercise and that research would be used by the government to take informed decisions on policies. When SDPI raised issues on land reform, the government stopped their funding and the institution faced financial crisis. From a research organization, they became an NGO that functions like other NGOs today. The bigwigs, the makers of the project abandoned it and went away. The money is not available, institutional space is not available. There is a basic way of development, which is cause and effect. If you are not willing to look at the causes and just pre – decide the effects, how will sustained development work out? At a meeting in Islamabad, I got talking with a high-level government official and an economist, and was asked to comment on the future of Karachi. I said there is a population of 18 million, there is rapid growth. Young people below the age of 35, who are nearly 50% of the city’s present population, will require jobs in the next ten years. What GDP growth rate do we need to create these jobs? An annual growth rate of 10-12%, is required if you are going to look after this population. According to the planning commission, the growth cannot be more than 2-3%, so what will this population do? The response was “Yeh sub aisi hi baatain hai. Yahan sub jugaar se chalta hai, jugaar se ho jaye ga!”

I was the chairperson of the task force on urban development, set up by the head of the Planning Commission. At the end of an exhaustive exercise of a year and a half, he made a comment that nailed the experience. He said that nothing would come out of it. I asked why. He said “It’s a matter of having the right man for the right job!  All the departments you have seen, including my own – none of them have the right man for the right job. Hence nothing will happen.” Does the planning commission have the right people? Does any department have the right people? You see an economist posted as a protocol officer, dealing with dignitaries. The fresh researcher with a big foreign degree doesn’t know what planning is. The ground realities are different to what is taught in school. We continue on the path of effects and lament on causes later. Our world and its systems are different, there are plenty of opportunities to research and write since we are a unique archetypal paradigmatical democracy.

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