Between the People and the Polis

The other serious thing is projects replacing planning. Karachi for the foreseeable future will only have projects. There is going to be no serious planning, and planning will be overtaken by projects. Accepting this, I tried to promote some principles on the basis of which projects could be judged and/or modified. These principles are: One, projects should not damage the ecology of the region in which the city is located; two, projects should, as a priority, seek to serve the interests of the majority who live in our cities, who are the lower-middle class and the working class; Three, projects should decide land-use on the basis of social and environmental considerations and not on the basis of land values alone. And four, projects should protect the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the communities that live in them. In my opinion, this would produce much better projects and improve peoples lives. But again, at the same meeting, the same gentleman responded, “With your four points, there would be no projects.” So that is another issue which needs to be taken into consideration.

However, to finish, the question is whether the megalomania and opportunism of politicians and planners will accept a new and more humane paradigm that curtails their profits and decommoditises land. I think that this is a very fundamental issue. I do not think that they will unless they are pressurised by city wide networks armed with alternative research and an alternative vision. In this, I think professional education can play a very important role. Right now, professional education is increasingly becoming pro-neoliberal in the bad sense of the word. I have often thought that it might help if graduating architects, planners and engineers could take an oath similar to those of doctors, and if they did not follow the terms of the oath, their names be removed from the list of practicing professionals.

In 1983, after evaluating an important urban renewal project which created poverty and environmental degradation, I made a pledge in writing. I will just quote from that. I wrote, “I will not do projects that will irreparably damage the ecology and environment of the area in which they are located. I will not do projects that increase poverty, dislocate people and destroy the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of communities that live in the city. I will not do projects that destroy multi-class space and violate building by-laws and zoning regulations. And I will always object to insensitive projects that do all this, provided I can offer viable alternatives.” Well I have tried to keep my promise, except that I have violated building rules and regulations, but they were bad ones. But I have put this before the architectural community again and again, “Why don’t we have such an oath?” And one of the architects answered, he said to me, ‘Arif bhai, hum toh bazaar meh bhettain hai.’ (Arif, we are part of a market). And this is a reality that we have to take into consideration when discussing a new paradigm.

Thank you so much.

* This is an edited transcript of the Himal Lecture delivered at the India International Centre, New Delhi on 7 November 2014. Watch the video of the lecture here.

* This article also appears in Himal Magazine.

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