By Zubeida Mustafa
Ten years ago when I decided to downshift and move into an apartment from an independent house, I was warned by a friend that I should think twice about the change. She said every apartment dweller she knew was constantly complaining of the difficulties caused by the non-cooperation of residents.
I didn’t heed her advice as I thought Karachi living had its problems, whether one’s abode was a mansion, a townhouse, or a flat in a complex. One had to figure out how to cope.
In retrospect, I feel apartment-living was the microcosm of life in Pakistan — and full of pitfalls. When I moved in, I was in a state of bliss. Having experienced two armed robberies in my home — when living in an independent house — I felt secure after a long time. The flat was bright and airy and had a view of the sea.
Admittedly, there were disadvantages too but one could manage with some adjustments. The builder was an affable gentleman who lived on the premises and managed the resident’s association with the help of a supervisor working on a voluntary basis. No one bothered to ask why this favour. As was only to be expected, the supervisor didn’t observe regular office hours and whenever we inquired for him we were told he had gone to the bank. That seemed to be his preferred activity. Only later I learnt that he was overseeing the construction of the builder’s new project.
The problems of apartment life are rooted in apathy.
We had to pay monthly maintenance dues — rather high compared to what residents of other buildings paid. The accounts were not audited or displayed. At my insistence, the supervisor would present me a sheet every month giving rough calculations of income and expenditure. Most intriguing was that the accounts were always in the red, with the backlog deficit amounting to hundreds of thousands of rupees. Most of this amount, I was informed, was the outstanding bill of water suppliers.
Over the years the quality of services began to depreciate. The guards began to look shabby as their uniforms were not replaced. Security deteriorated and strangers entered the building unchecked. Lifts no longer functioned as efficiently as before. One went permanently out of order but its maintenance charges continued to appear regularly in the accounts. Water, though brackish, had been supplied round the clock by bowsers. But eventually a time came when taps would frequently run dry and the generator couldn’t be operated as there was no money for fuel. Common spaces began to be encroached upon and decisions were taken unilaterally by those who felt strong enough to impose their likes and dislikes on others.
What was conspicuously absent was good governance, exacerbated by the indifference of residents to the basics of community life. The KBCA ostensibly regulates the construction and transfer of apartments in the city, home to about 5pc of Karachiites. But it doesn’t have a say in their running. Unsurprisingly, residential complexes have become islands of autonomy combined with degrees of anarchy all over the city. Residents associations are not mandatory under the law and are generally non-existent or not officially registered. People with clout seize control and use their powers illegally for personal advantage.
In our association, a police official was designated as the secretary. He operated as is the wont of his profession in Pakistan. He once had a chowkidar thrown into the lock-up to tame him.
The majority of the residents remained stoically silent before those wielding power — grumbling when they could — because they had abdicated their moral authority to demand accountability by defaulting on their dues. Few showed up for the rare meetings that were called. Nearly 17pc units were permanently locked as their non-paying owners were settled abroad. Others cheated in lesser ways.
Then came a stage when the builder quietly sold his apartment and left with his supervisor in tow without informing anyone. Before the administration could collapse, a few of us decided to mobilise the residents and take corrective measures. It was not easy. People who spent lakhs on the interiors of their flats had become used to neglecting common spaces. They had no sense of ownership for what was a joint possession. Hence few volunteered to take any responsibility.
But a group of us persisted and managed to get a substantial number round to agree to a regularised arrangement underpinned by registered bylaws. There was hope. Corruption had to be eliminated to balance the budget. We dismissed one chowkidar who was suspected of being in league with the water mafia. He was known to be in the good books of the secretary. That proved to be the last straw. There was a showdown and the reformers withdrew as there was no protection for them. The complex was back to square one when I called it a day. Matters, I hear, are worse than before but there is a deafening silence.