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The battle to save the Bagh

The story of Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim’s slow deterioration — the price Karachi’s green spaces have paid for development

The battle to save the Bagh

The reactions against the idea of the Bagh being taken over were mostly emotional. Yet, few noticed that the park had been dying since the last few years, bit by bit, with every fading tree and plant, and especially with the closing of the main entrance. One year ago, even the battery and UPS of the big clock in the Bagh were stolen. The number of those frequenting it dwindled over the years. Whether Bahria Town takes it over or not, the fact is that Karachiites are paying a price for the ‘development’ in the megacity with the shrinkage of public places.

Worse still is the Karachiites’ aching nostalgia that comes with it. Where once there was Playland, Aquarium, and the main entrance of the Bagh, is now a void.

A resident of this area says that he has seen the so-called development happen overnight as the entire area was well and truly encroached upon. “In the evenings, the Bagh used to be packed with youth, children and families. This park was the most well-lit part of the entire Clifton area. It used to be open almost till midnight,” he says, echoing the memories of many city-dwellers. “The weather would be cool in the evenings close to Karachi’s famous seafront. Standing in the bandstand and looking out at the sea was a fantastic experience,” he reminisces about the evenings spent at the park with his family.

Trees would provide shade to people and encourage them to flock to it even during daytime – the footfall was in the thousands. There was a mosque where visitors could go to pray, and there were foodstalls outside.

“The park had nice horticulture. Plants were shaped as animals. All of that faded. The grass used to be green; now it’s just barren sand over there,” he regrets.

Many public events, such as the centennial celebrations for the renowned poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz in 2011, were held there as the huge park grounds could accommodate large numbers of visitors.

Few noticed that the park had been dying since the last few years, bit by bit, with every fading tree and plant, and especially with the closing of the main entrance. One year ago, even the battery and UPS of the big clock in the Bagh were stolen.

The park has seen better days.

For columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha, however, this sudden wave of emotions seems too little too late. “Many folks don’t say or do anything about a problem, but suddenly spring to action if that problem is being solved through means they do not agree with.”

He thinks the Bagh has been in doldrums for quite a while now. “Yet, none of the politicos or members of the civil society making such a hue and cry of it being handed over to Malik Riaz did anything whatsoever to better the plight of this once spectacular park”.

Qasim Bagh in the glory days.

Qasim Bagh in the glory days.

The deterioration of the park did not happen overnight. For years, its main entrance was adjacent to where the Bahria Icon Tower looms today. When the construction of the skyscraper began, the main gate of the park became the entrance point for the site office. As a result, the gate was closed down. With the construction of an underpass, the Kothari Parade access points changed as well.

The resident, disgruntled at how the limited accessibility restricted visitors, holds the alteration responsible for changing the traffic flow: “Public transport could no longer collect passengers because the Abdullah Shah Ghazi Mazaar entrance was also changed to the side.”

Karachi - Bagh-e-Ibne Qasim - 055

“Now a majority of the buses pass by the mazaar’s new entrance, which is in the side lanes,” he explains. “Once this happened, the government failed to maintain the park.”

The other entrance to the park is the one which faces the sea. There is very limited public transport on that route and since a vast majority of visitors were ordinary people travelling in buses, the numbers began to drop. Having to walk long distances, and parking problems for those using personal vehicles made it more discouraging.

One of Karachi’s most diehard chroniclers, Ghazi Salahuddin, says he had been observing the deterioration of the Bagh, and feels this was neglect with an agenda. “It’s not just about this Park; it’s about Karachi as a whole. This city’s civic life has been plundered. From public spaces to transport to garbage collection – the government is not performing its civic responsibilities,” says Ghazi, dismayed at the bad condition of places such as Qasim Bagh. “These shared spaces are so precious. Karachi’s cultural life has also been effected by neglecting them,” he says, and adds that whenever he visits Lahore, he feels Karachi is no longer the city of lights, but it is Lahore now.


Whether this disrepair is because the inflow of visitors decreased or was it done by design is debatable, the resident thinks. “It would be silly to assume that residents of the high-rise would want a view of a park in shambles. When the entrance of the mazaar and park was changed, it warded away ordinary people. Who would want ordinary people around such prime, expensive real estate property?” he asks.

Journalist and tv show host, Zarrar Khuhro feels that Karachi does have precedents of public-private partnerships, and that is not always a bad thing. “An example is how Asim Jofa has used the Do Talwar roundabout for his advertisements, but then he has also maintained that area well and in fact improved it.”

His worry, however, is deeper than just one park. “Public spaces are shrinking in Karachi, especially for the lower and lower-middle class. A city is held together by public spaces.”

Khuhro also says that in Karachi, the rise of gated communities and the disappearance of shared spaces is resulting in social silos. “Playland, Aquarium – that’s all gone. Development should be done, but must be done responsibly, keeping the character of the city in mind.”

He also comments that the stake of Bahria properties in Karachi raises questions, “considering that regulations have been circumvented and even broken to facilitate these properties”.

If Karachiites are getting another chance at utilising this park for the benefit of citizens, then as Paracha suggests, more should be done to maintain Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim while it’s still there.

This is an updated version of the article that was published in The News on Sunday on April 09, 2017

The symbolic death of Pakistan’s mastermind


The show that was to make unparalleled history. The show of 20 questions that gained such mass appeal that it redefined the word Kasauti in the Urdu lughat (dictionary). The show that started off in the Radio Pakistan building with three friends with beautiful minds teeming with information quizzing each other with 20 questions about any and every topic under the sun. Kasauti is part of our national heritage. As was Obaidullah Baig whom we lost on June 22, 2012.

The genius of Baig lies in a number of facts. The fact that he did not have scholarly education and was actually the product of Maktab based education in UP, yet so accepted was his status as a man of knowledge that a majority not just assumed that he was a trained scholar but revered him as one.

It is fascinating that a single man could have tapped into so many areas of his brain that he had simultaneous grip over subjects as varied as wildlife, ancient mythology, anthropology, scientific discoveries or simply the people of the world. And was also a writer, a prolific documentary film maker and one of the most well-known faces of the Pakistani intelligentsia. The fact that he did this in an era when search engines did not exist, he could have easily put many a google to shame. And most importantly, that Baig did this all in the most pleasant of ways. Winning humility, undisputed finesse, articulate speech and that amiable smile. It is no small wonder that there was no street of Pakistan on which he would walk and go unrecognised.

Rumana Husain, an artist, says, “We knew him as a living encyclopedia but his other loves were nature, the environment, heritage. He had the answers on his finger tips for such diverse subjects, and that never ceased to amaze me. He was such a gentle and patient listener too. In my opinion he connected well with the masses because of his humility.”

Kasauti had a monumental and lasting impact on the nation. It was a program that was intellectually stimulating, yet had mass appeal. Usually, the packaging of intelligent information in media lacks the quality that makes people relate to it. Brainy shows for thinkers are always a bit boring to the average person. Too academic, lacking the outreach quality. Often, if not always, the best brains are happy in their comfort zone bubbles of academia, research and like-minded people. They’d rather not venture into the common-brain zone. And the common man is happy not having to tax their brains too much. Polarisation in effect.  But Obaidullah Baig, Iftikhar Arif and Quraishpur’s trio changed all of that with this show that started in 1967. They made knowledge trendy. They made history, literature and the effects of these on society interesting. In a country that has sadly maintained its dismal rate of literacy; the show not only educated the masses but got the common man thinking.

Ghazi Salahuddin, Baig’s friend and comrade of 55 years and renowned journalist, anchored the second phase of Kasauti in the ‘90s. He thinks the same Kasauti would be obsolete today. “People’s attention spans are much shorter. Their interests have moved on to sports, technology and fashion. If today a quiz show like Kasauti were to be produced, the questions would be different, as would be the audience,” says Salahuddin, with a hint of disillusionment in his words.

Baig’s loss becomes much more profound when we realise the truth in Salahuddin’s words when he says’ “the real crisis in this country is the intellectual and moral decline.” With fewer and fewer people reading books in Pakistan, Baig as an archetypical role model becomes even rarer. With lesser people like him being churned out with each subsequent generation, his shadow looms large over the world of knowledge in Pakistan – an irreplaceable shadow. Here was a man who taught by example that even without formal higher education, a person could develop his mental faculties and build his reservoir of knowledge if he chooses to. Baig set precedents; precedents that need to be followed if we want a better society of thinking, well-rounded individuals.

Digressing a little, when I asked Salahuddin on what he blames this love lost for reading in Pakistan, he vehemently rejects the theory that it is due to the internet. “World over, people have access to the net. More than Pakistan. They tweet and facebook and still read. The bookshops maybe in danger, as is the romance of the hard copy of books with the advent of Amazon and the Kindle. But fact remains that more books are being authored globally than ever before,” he says. In his eyes, Pakistan’s reasons are illiteracy, the loss of our grip over both Urdu and English languages and misunderstood religiosity that discourages free thought.

In losing the man called Obaidullah Baig, Pakistan lost more than a beautiful mind. The juncture at which we have lost him is ironic. His death, in the words of Salahuddin, is “symbolic”. Symbolic of a nation’s intellectual decline.

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