Assessing the reasons for the city administration’s failure to check encroachments
The city administration has failed to eliminate the menace of encroachments from the streets and roads of the provincial metropolis. The reasons for this are said to be large-scale corruption and malpractices prevailing in all tiers of the concerned city government departments, especially the Metropolitan Corporation of Lahore (MCL) and the Lahore Development Authority (LDA).
If one takes a tour of the city, one finds that all claims made by the civic authorities about the removal of encroachments from the city and cantonment areas, are false because the customers visiting different markets in the city can still find no space to park their vehicles. The footpaths and markets in Bilal Ganj, Shahdara, RA Bazaar, Ichhra, Chungi Amar Sidhu, Shadman, Walton, Gulberg, Model Town, Saddar and Anarkali, as well as on the Ravi Road, The Mall, Hall Road, Temple Road, Allama Iqbal Road, Circular Road and McLeod Road are infested with encroachments that comprise makeshift roadside stalls or pop-up shops.
The survey further shows that generally the shopkeepers themselves are involved — as they want to extend their businesses, they encroach on the pavement space in front of their shops. Many others let some vendors run their businesses next to their shops for small amounts of money, thus forcing the pedestrians to walk in the middle of the road. It has become harder for people to even walk freely in these markets.
As major roads and markets of Lahore are virtually under the control of the encroachment mafia, which creates hurdles for customers and commuters, as footpaths are under occupation and there is traffic mess on the roads.
The encroachers ask that when they are paying ‘monthlies’ to the inspectors, how can someone, no matter how powerful, remove their illegal structures or kiosks.
Insofar as Lahore is concerned, the encroachments have practically become a permanent part of the city. But even that does not mean they are acceptable or desirable. They are, of course, illegal. They not only impede foot and vehicular traffic but also deny rightful use to the owners of the land they stand on.
Although the encroachment mafia has been wreaking havoc with the city life, encroachments are only an occasional object of attention for civic authorities that conduct clearances. Resultantly, the encroachers are invariably back within days or weeks.
The city has had several anti-encroachment drives in recent days, but their impact has swiftly been negated. An investigation reveals that a parallel system of corruption has been set up in the MCL and the LDA by dint of which various bazaars and major markets like Anarkali, Ichhra, Johar Town, Gulberg and Shahdara are sublet to area inspectors who offer hefty amounts to their seniors such as zonal officers for regulations (ZOR) for establishing encroachments at these places.
These offers are doubled during the Eidul Fitr and Eidul Azha. Hardly anyone is transferred or punished for their misdeeds.
Another reason for the increase in encroachments in the city is the backing of influential persons. Ali Sheraz, a correspondent for a local TV channel, says that in the past the concerned MCL area inspectors and towns’ staff directly collected heavy bribe ‘monthlies’ from city markets as well as shopkeepers. He says, after they were apprehended red-handed, they changed their modus operandi.
On the cards are pushcart bazaars which will be set up in different parts of the city, in order to protect the livelihood of the poor segments of the society. The concerned staff has been tasked to identify suitable places across nine towns of the city in this regard.
Today, they have hired private staff for the purpose, says Sheraz, adding that this staff collects monthlies in the form of committees on daily basis. “They have proper registers to note the amounts they collect from the markets and the shopkeepers in the register.”
Sheraz alleges that Rs 30-40 million is collected every month from the city markets in this way.
He says the amount collected in this way is distributed not only among the private staff but also among the inspectors, ZOR, and higher officers of the MCL and the LDA.
Zubair Wattoo, the MO (Regulations) for the MCL, rejects the allegations of a system of corruption in the MCL ranks. “Because of the pandemic, the anti-encroachment campaign in the city was affected,” he says. “However, as life is returning to normal, a comprehensive strategy has been chalked out to deal with the encroachers with an iron hand.”
He claims that the MCL’s anti-encroachment staff takes strict action against encroachers and imposes fines on them. “We’re going to have meetings with market associations and shopkeepers, in which we shall issue warnings with regard to encroachments in the respective markets and in front of shops. Strict action will be taken against the violators.”
Also on the cards are pushcart bazaars which will be set up in several parts of the city, in order to protect the livelihood of the vendors. The concerned staff has been tasked to identify suitable places across nine towns of the city in this regard.
According to Wattoo, special focus is on eliminating movable encroachments and concrete structures on major roads, especially those declared model roads such as Johar Town Road, Iqbal Town Road, Ferozepur Road, Multan Road, The Mall, Gulberg’s Main Boulevard and Shadman Road.
A senior MCL official says, on condition of anonymity, that political pressure and corruption within the concerned government institutions are the root-causes for the menace of encroachments.
He says shopkeepers and trade associations are also guilty of patronising encroachments and pop-up stalls. Besides, they collect “monthly rent” from the encroachers.
Ahmed Shahab, a shopkeeper in Shah Alam Market, has a different take on the topic. He says, “We strongly condemn the existence of encroachment mafia because of which a lot of our customers avoid visiting the markets that have become really congested.
“On one hand, our businesses suffer on account of the encroachments, and on the other, we get accused of supporting and patronising the encroachment mafia. That’s not done,” he declares.
The writer is a senior journalist and can be reached at [email protected]