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Mitharam Hostel conversion to sub-jail draws sharp criticism

Mitharam Hostel conversion to sub-jail draws sharp criticism

KARACHI: The Sindh government’s decision to convert the Mitharam Hostel, an historic edifice with magnificent architecture, into a sub-jail has drawn severe criticism from conservationists who demand the government to take back the decision and set up the jail outside city limits.

The colonial style Gizri sandstone building was a ground plus two upper storey structure purpose built to provide accommodation to students who came from remote areas of the province to its capital in pursuit of higher education.

Named after a philanthropist Rai Bahadur Diwan Mitharam Giddumal and located in thickly populated centre of the city near Pakistan Chowk, the hostel was built between 1889 and 1901 and is among more than 1,000 buildings declared protected under the Sindh Heritage Protection Act.

Across the road is another beautiful building, Dayaram Jethmal Sindh College. The hostel provided accommodation to students studying at DJ college, the Nadershaw Eduljee Dinshaw Engineering College (now a university), besides other educational institutions providing higher education in the city.

The hostel, like many other educational buildings in the city, has been in the possession of Pakistan Rangers for the past many years and served as barracks for soldiers.

After the launch of targeted operation, the Rangers now required a building to house suspects it picked up for investigation. So on its request, the Sindh government declared the Mitharam Hostel as a sub-jail.

A senior architect, Yasmeen Lari, the Unesco’s consultant on heritage management who had lobbied for years and eventually succeeded to get historic buildings protected under the law in mid 1990s, said the decision to convert the historic edifice into a jail should not have been taken.

She said there were many educational institutions around the Mitharam Hostel where thousands of youth came to pursue higher education and they would be exposed to additional security measures required for the safety of the jail.

She said the jails should be kept away from populated areas because of security hazards. While one had been hearing of government plans to relocate outside the city the Central Prison, which was out of the city limits when it was constructed but over years it was surrounded by residential areas, the government’s plan to set up a new jail in the midst of the city was incomprehensible, she said.

She said that soon the Rangers would want to fortify the Mitharam Hostel to enhance security and carry out heavy construction in it which would not be possible as the building was protected under the law, which restricted new constructions in protected structures.

She said the building was designed as a hostel and not as a jail by a renowned architect James Strachan who was associated with the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation and had to his credit many other beautiful edifices like the Empress Market. By converting the hostel into a jail, the government was completely changing the character of the historic edifice, she said.

Hameed Akhund, former secretary of Sindh culture department, said that it was an education related building and should not be converted into a jail. Located in the middle of thickly populated area, the building would expose the locality to violence and threats of terrorist attacks after it had been converted into a jail, he said.

He said the heritage buildings should not only be restored and rehabilitated but should also be opened to public so that common people could appreciate the beautiful architecture and cherish their past.

He pointed out security issues and recalled an attack in 2010 by members of a banned outfit on CID Headquarters in Civil Lines opposite to Chief Minister’s House where suspects were brought for investigation. The attack had left over 100 dead and injured.

As the Rangers would be keeping people suspected of terrorist activities in this jail, it would make the entire locality vulnerable to similar deadly attacks by terrorist outfits, he said.

He said the Rangers could ask the Sindh government to provide them some other building or land, as it had done in the past also, to set up specifically designed purpose built facility.

He said the Rangers were carrying out an important job in the ongoing operation against terrorists and criminals but setting up a jail in the centre of the city would expose innocent civilians to unnecessary threats.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2015

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