The State of Heritage Sites in Karachi

By Amal Hashim

The state of architectural heritage in Karachi has undergone massive changes since Pakistan’s partition and independence in 1947. Since Lahore is usually seen as the cultural hub of the country, buildings and monuments from the colonial period in Karachi have been neglected entirely. Where entire neighbourhoods once stood proudly displaying their diverse (and yet common) architectural features, there are now concrete high-rises. But how did this come to be? How did the heaps of garbage and dirt and squatters swallow up Empress Market?

Buildings – houses, government offices, parks, and libraries – of the British colonial period were owned mostly by the British government themselves or the elite class of Sindh (Karachi) that consisted of Hindus and Parsis mostly. These places were once spectacular sights to behold simply because of the details in the architectural façade.

There are layers of politics and intricate details behind all of this. These spaces occupy large areas of land, sometimes much larger than the allotted plots of land in what are now some of the most elite areas of Karachi. However, most of them are concentrated in the Saddar and Civil Lines/ Cantonment area. This area is in itself very important because of a variety of reasons but for real estate developers these plots are gold because of their value and the buildings that can be built on them if the colonial buildings are destroyed or brought down.

In 1994, the government passed the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act and 600 buildings were brought under its protection. However, despite this monumental step and existing panels such as the Heritage Committee consisting of Arif Hasan, Hameed Haroon and various others working closely with the government in identifying and preserving these sites – a large number of these buildings have still been brought down to make room for the rapidly growing population in a rapidly growing metropolis.

The Civil Lines/ Cantonment area has been transformed over the years so that even the bricks forming the pathways in Frere Hall (also known as Jinnah Bagh) have been replaced with concrete while high-rises continue to be constructed at a dangerously rapid pace.

Nonetheless, the government is to partially partake in the blame for the situation. In 2014, the Sindh High Density Board Act was passed by the government which allowed for infrastructure and housing development to continue to take place even if the heritage sites were put at risk as a result of them. A case in point would be the development of Bahria Town Tower right next to the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi and completely changing the landscape of Old Clifton.

The problems facing Karachi’s heritage sites are not few and while most of them arise out of a single cause, there is not a single solution for them despite repeated efforts by multiple stakeholders and organisations. As mentioned earlier, Karachi faces an acute problem of housing its rapidly growing population. Demolishing these buildings and constructing high-rises over them could alleviate this pressure but only for the rich. The price of real estate built on previously-heritage grounds is very high and does not address the problem for squatters or even the lower middle class.

Furthermore, it was later revealed that a building having “government protected” status meant almost nothing and gave no benefits to its owners. For one, making any changes to a heritage or “government protected” site requires a lot of procedures and people need to get approvals from the government and for another, the value of the property drops significantly unless it is completely dilapidated because despite government claims, it did not provide for the maintenance and restoration of the buildings.