KARACHI: July 9. The clandestine construction of a wall on an army-controlled residential compound near Empress Market has raised hackles among its mainly Christian inhabitants, as the custodians had earlier frozen all construction and repair work th
Residents say the wall, erected four days ago under the nose of the army's guard commander on the compound, is the handiwork of a former watchman who has illegally occupied part of the compound. They claim that Iftikhar Ahmed erected the wall ahead of what they suspect to be a well-orchestrated plan to seize more land.
"Iftikhar plans to use the wall to occupy more territory," said one Christian resident whose family has been living there for the past 70 years. Nearly all the 27 Christian families out of 41 house dwellers have lived in 117 Depot Lines compound since the 1930s. "He has tricked the army guards posted there by putting a curtain over the freshly-constructed walll," he said.
Iftikar Ahmed, who secretly built a bungalow in the far corner of the compound as well as second-hand garment stores in the 1990s, runs a pay-phone facility on the premises. These constructions are neither legal nor accounted for in the original design plan, residents say.
The latest infringement of the construction freeze has angered the 41 compound residents because the army and local authorities have prevented them from carrying out urgent repair work. "Our gutter is in need of repair and two roofs down here must be replaced," said another resident. Construction experts warn that if the ceilings of two buildings in the compound aren't fixed roof cave-in could occur in the event of rain. The compound residents have also been stopped from repairing their sewer line. Yet, they say, no authority took notice of the illegal encroachment and construction of shops and a bungalow by Itikhar Ahmed, who came to the site as a watchman some 25 years ago.
Almost a decade ago, residents allege, Iftikhar broke open the front door lock of deceased compound resident William Almeida's house in block no 117/46 and seized control over his residence. In the summer of 2000, Iftikhar acquired the keys of a house occupied by Soli Manna, a Parsi resident of block no 117/45, from the retired assistant quartermaster of Army Station Headquarters Arif Abbasi. Soli's sister Gulubaiji upon his death handed over the keys to Abbasi. According to one resident, Iftikhar has occupied altogether one-third of the built-up area of the compound. Originally the 15,000-square yard compound belonged to Parsi philanthropist Eduljee Dinshaw who moved to India in 1965. Since his departure the compound was declared an enemy property by the Pakistan government, but his 40 or so tenants continued paying rent to the local authorities via the court until December 1980. Eleven year later, the property was taken over by the army.
Over the past two decades, the residents of 117 Depot Lines have lived through periods of uncertainty when development plans advocated the demolition of the compound homes. In February 14, 2001, the inhabitants were told to leave their homes or risk being thrown out by army and city land officials. The residents were in deep shock as they were told not to expect any compensation. They decided to take the matter to court and within a week won an injunction that forbade the authorities from dispossessing them. But the court that passed the injunction also said those residents' homes could be demolished later after a proper notice was served to them. With the status of the compound remaining unchanged in subsequent months, the residents are bitter over the fact that no official attempt has been made at relocating them.
"Iftikhar has terrorized the other inhabitants of 117 Depot Lines. He has arrogated the position of sole spokesman for the compound dwellers and did not allow us to form a joint action committee. He has beaten up two individuals who challenged him and attempted to slap a young girl across the face," said a female resident. "We want the authorities to be fair to us. If they allow one man to build shops and walls, then why do they disallow us from carrying out simple repair work."
The majority of the residents say they want to continue living on the compound but they would be willing to vacate if the authorities work out some reasonable settlement. "We just want a little compensation if we are evicted from our homes or relocation to another area," said a 56-year-old woman who was born there.