Advocate of Human Rights – Engineer Roland deSouza

Roland deSouza is a Professional Engineer & Principal Electrical Consultant at Fahim, Nanji & deSouza Pvt. Ltd (FND), a well-known social and environmental activist – and has a page on Wikipedia too! His engineering firm specializes in mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) consultancy for industrial, commercial, institutional and residential buildings, is based in Karachi and has worked on prestigious public and private sector projects all over the country. FND is recognized as a leading MEP consulting firm of Pakistan, offering the latest in innovative and out-of-the-box integrated solutions building services, facilitating proper and low-energy operation of buildings by due diligence and coordination during the design, construction and commissioning/testing stages.

Roland deSouza is a former Chairperson of Shehri – Citizens for a Better Environment, an advocacy group working for the improvement of environmental conditions in Karachi and other areas of Pakistan, has been a Council Member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) for over a decade, and is a Fellow of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, an international organization that promotes social entrepreneurship. He is an advocate of human rights, raising his voice to promote protection of the built environment and create public awareness about town-planning/building violations and illegal occupation of public land and amenity spaces. He writes in the press on environmental and human rights issues.

ARCHI TIMES (AT): Before we begin talking about your engineering career, it would be good to know you as a person and your educational background?
Roland deSouza (RD): I went to St. Patrick’s School and College in Karachi. Hats off to the teachers who gave us a solid foundation! When I completed Inter-Science in 1969, I hadn’t really thought about what career path to take. Unlike today, at that time young boys and girls did not give much thought to their future goals and vocation. Under advice from a former mathematics teacher I was about to enroll in a B.Sc. (Mathematics) programme at Karachi University, when I met an old school friend and found out that he was applying to NED Engineering College. The idea seemed a good one — and I also ended up getting admission!

At that time, NED offered only three disciplines, civil, electrical and mechanical. I opted for electrical engineering. There were 150 seats in all, out of which 120 were on merit and 30 were for various quotas. Seven merit seats were bagged by Christians that year. I was a reasonable student, adept at passing exams and sailed through my technical education in 1974 (a one year delay caused by the 1971 war). There were many good professors at the college and we owe much to their guidance.

AT: After graduation, what job did you undertake?
Roland deSouza: Initially, I completed a thirteen-month training programme (design and manufacture of motors, transformers, MV/LV switchgear, building wiring, sales, etc) with Siemens Pakistan in 1975. It was here that my interest in electrical engineering began in earnest.

As a part of community formation during my youth, I realized how fortunate I was in the opportunities that had come my way: I had to share my talents and education for the benefit of others. I left Siemens, and worked for a development organization of my community in rural Punjab for three and a half years, living in a village near Mian Channun. We did community organization projects in the region around Multan, Bahawalpur, Muzzafargarh and Rahim Yar Khan districts. I found this work stimulating, and learnt a lot about the rest of Pakistan in my wide ranging travels.

After returning to Karachi in 1979 to marry Vicki (who came back from California, a place she had migrated to with her family 3½ years earlier), I worked for Thariani & Co on a part-time basis for two years, while simultaneously trying to set up my own consulting practice. Working with the Thariani brothers, especially Saleem, was an outstanding experience, and I come have to consider Saleem as a mentor. Vicki and I have been married for 37 years and have three sons, Adam, Zane (married to Huma, grandson Raafay) and Zachary.

AT: When was Fahim, Nanji and deSouza (FND) established and how did that come about?
Roland deSouza : The initial five years as an independent electrical consultant were difficult ones. It was not easy to get architects and clients to give you assignments, especially as they already had old loyalties with others and also weren’t too sure what you could deliver. Things started improving after 1984.

I was working on the Johnson & Johnson pharma plant refurbishment in Korangi with Arshad Abdulla in 1985. He seemed to like the stuff I had done with him on a few other projects and suggested to Fahim Siddiqui, who was also working on the J&J project, that it would be advantageous to the consultancy profession if the two of us were to get together. During our discussions, Fahim and I considered expanding the venture to include a structural engineer in order to provide complete, coordinated engineering consultancy services to architects. Both of us knew Ghulam Abbas Nanji, who had recently returned from the US: we asked him to join us.

FND was established in 1987 and it took us some time to find our feet. Unfortunately, after five years, Nanji decided to migrate to Canada (where he works for Underwriters Laboratories as a materials specialist). We decided to retain his name in the firm as “FND” had developed a certain ring to it.

Over the past 30 years we’ve had our ups and downs, but FND has established a stellar reputation in Pakistan for integrity, competence and innovation in the fields of electrical and mechanical building services engineering. The firm has been involved in a wide spectrum of projects including universities, hospitals, industrial facilities, commercial and office buildings, pharmaceutical plants, theatres and cultural complexes, and a plethora of other structures all over the country. We are increasingly incorporating environment-friendly measures in its MEP designs.

AT: Your partnership has survived for a good thirty years. We don’t see many partnerships being sustainable these days, unless they are family concerns. What is the secret behind this success?
Roland deSouza: Most partnerships break up because of financial issues. In our case, as the two technologies (electrical and mechanical) are distinct, we were able to develop a formula that has endured for three decades. Besides, both Fahim and I have tolerant philosophies and try to work things out. I think a partnership is like a marriage, which needs a lot of ‘give and take’ to succeed. The overall advantages of being in a partnership need to be appreciated and constantly kept in mind.

Additionally, we have had a great respect for the technical abilities, dedication to excellence and integrity that we see in each other. This is not easy to find in the marketplace. In 2012, FND became a private limited company and today we have seven shareholder directors, including Fahim and myself. We expect the tradition to continue.

AT: FND has a reputation of providing innovative MEP solutions. Do you think this is the result of your long standing association?
Roland deSouza: We have always tried to analyze projects in detail, be original, look at things in a new light and generate individual, appropriate solutions. We know that engineering design can be done at any cost, but feel sorry for clients who make hiring decisions based solely on the fee quoted by competing consultants. After all, no client wants to merely reduce the amount of the professional fee. He actually wants to reduce the overall engineering cost of the project. And if one pays a inadequate consultancy fee, the chances are very good that the construction costs will be high owing to inadequate time spent on poor designs (and other unethical considerations). Overall, the client loses money — in addition to not having optimum, energy-efficient and safe/code-compliant installations. We find that multinational firms generally appreciate the value of good engineering consultants (like most people realize the value of a outstanding doctors or lawyers or chartered accountants) and are willing to pay the extra money to get the best.

I would like to narrate an experience here. In 1991, we responded to a press advertisement asking for EOIs from licensed consultants to undertake the electrical design of the upcoming Indus Motor Co (IMC) plant at Bin Qasim. We survived the preliminary vetting stages, including a visit by the IMC team to the Gillette factory that we had recently completed at Hub Chowki.

IMC then asked the short-listed firms to submit a preliminary design statement for the Welding Shop of the proposed plant. I was fortunate enough to have come across a couple of relevant articles in an electrical consulting magazine related to intricacies of this design problem, and was able to make a presentation on how the issue was to be tackled.

I later learnt that the Toyota engineers from Japan were impressed by the approach of our firm and recommended that we be appointed. We were issued a letter of appointment “subject to satisfactory financial negotiation of the fees”. FND had never received such a letter before! We eventually finalised the fee and completed the job in time to the satisfaction of the clients. Fifteen years later, we were able to provide additional innovative solutions to IMC to enable them to run the expanded Welding Shop on minimum standby diesel generator capacity.
A good designer knows the basic principles of engineering, keeps abreast of state-of-the-art techniques and developments, and uses his creativity in particular situations to find ingenious solutions. I play the guitar and the piano and know that, while there are only thirteen basic notes, imaginative combinations of these basic notes, both in sequence and duration, produce the creative varieties of beautiful music that all of us enjoy.

AT: Tell us about your experiences with other professionals.
Roland deSouza: I have worked with many competent architectural and engineering professionals, and have learnt a lot from them over the years. In our society, remuneration is regrettably not commensurate with the efforts put into a design task. As a result, professionals are forced to take on more work than they can handle and are thus unable to do justice to projects. The professional fee situation in Karachi is better than that in Lahore, where most consultants are obliged to take up contracting because consultancy just doesn’t pay. Consequently, the best engineers leave the country for greater opportunities, less corruption, recognition of merit and a higher standard of living.

As a professional, I have learnt a lot from Saleem Thariani, and I really admire Arif Hassan for his commitment to the poor and his detailed knowledge of the issues of the city and the country.

AT: You are the first electrical engineer in Pakistan to have the honour of being elected a Fellow of the Institute of Architects Pakistan (IAP). How did this come about?
Roland deSouza: The award of the Fellowship was in recognition of my efforts with Shehri-CBE over a number of years to tackle issues of the built environment in Karachi. Acknowledgment by one’s peers in the buildings field is gratifying.

AT: What other professional bodies are you affiliated with?
Roland deSouza: The Principals and senior engineers of FND have been active in professional societies and technical committees, and keep themselves updated on developments and advances in the electrical and mechanical fields. We have presented a number of practical technical papers at seminars and symposiums of the IEEEP, IEP, HVACR Society, ASHRAE (Pakistan) , IAP, and at other public technical forums. I have served as the Convener (Technical) of the IEEEP (Karachi Centre) and Chairman of the PSQCA’s Electro-Technical Committee on ‘Electrical Installations in Buildings’.

I have been an occasional lecturer at the Dawood Engineering College, the Indus Valley College of Art & Architecture, the Usman Institute of Technology, the National Institute of Management (formerly NIPA) and other educational institutions in Karachi.

AT: How important are MEP systems while designing any project and what considerations do you keep in mind?
Roland deSouza: Architecture must respond to utilitarian requirements. A building needs to be practical, unlike other forms of art like painting and sculpture. A building is not designed and constructed to merely be admired from afar. It must work well. Architecture must address everyday issues including optimum utilization of space, easy movement of occupants, creation of internal environments suitable for occupants, sustainability of materials, low energy use, etc.

If the building is compared to the human body, then the muscular, respiratory, blood-circulation and related systems of the body are analogous to the electrical and mechanical systems of a building. An award-winning building is one that serves its function well. This would include good lighting, ventilation and cooling/heating, vertical transportation, fire-safety and minimum energy use.

AT: How do you feel about the standards of technical education at our institutions?
Roland deSouza: I have taught at Dawood College and the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture for a total of about 15 years. It was a challenge as young students in architecture generally consider the subject of mechanical and electrical building services (and structures) to be unnecessary. This is a fallacy, in the light of my response to your previous question: a pretty building with low-quality MEP spaces and services is a third-class building.

Even the fact that MEP floor spaces could be up to 10%, MEP volumes up to 25%, and MEP construction costs up to 50% of total building spaces/volumes/costs does not seem to encourage architects to devote enough time to understanding the involved issues.

I think the quality of many technical graduates today is good, and time will hone their skills. With a bit of discipline, an eagerness to inquire and study and a willingness to put in the hours much can be achieved.

It is difficult to find experienced teachers and professors, and many insitituions have to make do with part-time lecturers. This needs to be addressed.

AT: What is your opinion about the use of alternative energy sources and construction of ‘green buildings’ in Pakistan?
Roland deSouza: We may be doing too little, too late. Addressing the looming environmental disaster requires many sacrifices, and drastic changes in lifestyle: eliminating air conditioners, cycling or walking, reducing air travel, treating/diminishing waste, eating less meat, etc. A few solar panels here, some LED lighting there is a mere drop in the ocean. It is our unfortunate desire to imitate the West (like Dubai has done), which is degrading the earth. We must keep things simple.

Terms like sustainability, ‘green’ architecture, eco-something-or-the other, etc. are becoming popular buzzwords in our pretended tackling of the emerging environmental catastrophe. Mankind is slowly destroying its habitat with ever-increasing resources consumption, consequential waste generation and escalating population (which has reached 7.6 billion in 2017 from one billion merely two hundred years ago). Two momentous, unnatural events have caused this tragedy: first, the conversion of humans, starting around 12,000 years ago, from ‘sustainable’ hunter-gatherers to ‘environment-ravaging’ farmers, and second, the emergence of the industrial revolution about two centuries ago.

If we look at Pakistan, the majority of the people are illiterate. So it is only a minority who can begin to comprehend and address this issue. But is that feasible? Are you willing to reduce your consumption, your wastes and your population? Although the problem is very largely not of our making, South Asia will be the most affected. The New York Times recently reported that cities like Karachi and Kolkata are being increasingly being affected by heat stress and will eventually become “uninhabitable”.

AT: How do we inculcate professionalism into various occupations?
Roland deSouza: I feel that one should allow the market forces to operate freely. The market must demand professionalism. Professionals who are established in a field form a club of their own and do not let others enter. In an open market, market forces determine who is better and who gives his client satisfaction. So if an engineer/architect is practicing without an appropriate qualification but is competent, then the market will support him.

AT: What are your experiences working in Pakistan as a Christian?
Roland deSouza: In the sixty-six years of my life, I have not experienced discrimination – partially because I am not expecting it. A friend, a Shia professional, once told me that he too belonged to a minority community that included the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The only reason he was able to do so well in his profession, despite the increasing intolerance in Pakistan, was that he was “twice as good as the next man”. He advised me to adopt the same philosophy.

I have transmitted this message to hundreds of people (everyone in Pakistan is some sort of a minority!) telling them to work harder and ignore the setbacks. Thirty years later, the same friend told me “You’re doing well, Roland. People say ‘deSouza ko kaam de do, who kam chori kare ga’ (give the work to deSouza, he will steal less)!

AT: What are your views about life in Karachi, in general?
Roland deSouza: The educated cream of our society has largely migrated. And many, who do not have parents here, are not willing to come back to the city, even for a visit.

This year, we tried to organize in Karachi a 50-year reunion of our St. Patrick’s School 1967 graduating class. Four of the 22 class-fellows are in the city, but the vast majority who live in North America and Europe were not willing to come here as they consider Karachi to be very unsafe. Thus, the reunion is being held in Toronto.

Life in Karachi is chaotic as there is a complete absence of governance under the present political dispensation. The population of the city has ballooned from 0.4 million in 1947 to around 25 million today, with generally mafias of all persuasions catering to the needs of the residents. The traffic and parking situation is horrific, law and order continues to deteriorate, crooked politicians and sleazy bureaucrats/officials are ramping up corruption – while the poor continue to suffer.

AT: You have been working with Shehri since a long time for the betterment of Karachi, how do you manage time for these activities? And also highlight the role of Shehri?
Roland deSouza: At one time, 80% of my day was spent working on Shehri issues. My partner and senior engineers were good enough to allow me take out so much time and covered for me. The sense of doing something worthwhile for the community was very rewarding. But I have progressively reduced my involvement owing to various personal reasons.

Shehri was already established as an NGO when my wife and I became members in 1995. We joined because of the proliferating unauthorized construction in Garden East, where we live. Over the years Shehri has managed to stop many illegal buildings around the city, facilitate the establishment of the KBCA Oversee Committee and Public Information Counter for 5 years, have 265 projects sealed, and get some (Glass Towers, Costa Livina, etc) demolished. Occupation of some public amenity land has been folied, including parks and playgrounds, including the 450 acres remaining in Gutter Baghicha, 11 KTC bus depots in Karachi, 15 SRTC bus depots throughout Sindh, Kidney Hill park, Makro-Webb playground in Karachi, and Doongi Ground in Lahore. All this has been possible because of the dedication, courage and integrity of a small group of people who make up Shehri.

Our efforts have been recognized by the judiciary, the government, the press — and have given many others hope. My greatest regret is that we have not been able to motivate the residents of Karachi to donate enough human and financial resources to addressing environmental issues. While giving charity funds to hospitals, schools and mosques is admirable, these welfare organizations do not tackle problems of governance, corruption and degradation of the environment. It is ironic that foreign organizations (German, US, etc) seem to be more interested than local citizens in the environment of Pakistan and support the initiatives of Shehri.

My wife and children were also tolerant of the setbacks they had to suffer owing to my involvement in Shehri. I am grateful to them.

AT: What are your views on what’s happening in Karachi’s urban planning and architecture?
Roland deSouza: Architects and engineers have created the built situation of our city, either actively or passively. Over the last seventy years, the built environment of Karachi has exploded and degraded. Over 60% of the population lives in low-quality, hazardous katchi-abadis on 2% of the city land area. The accelerating construction of high rise buildings continues to take place on seismic hazard prone land, on reclaimed land and without any consideration of availability of utilities (water, gas, sewerage, electricity, etc) or infrastructure (parks, playgrounds, schools, hospitals, police stations, government buildings, traffic facilities, etc). Proper provision for fire-safety (compartmentation, risk-analysis, adequate egress routes, sprinklers, alarm systems, etc) is virtually absent.

Professionals involved in the design of buildings share in the responsibility for the damage to the built environment as they work for tax-evaders, polluters and environment degraders. According to Roger Bilham’s ‘The seismic future of cities’ (http://citeseerx ), many third world cities building stock will not survive expected major earthquakes over the next century and we will all share in the blame.

The ridiculous is possible in Karachi: China cutting where land allocated for parks is converted and sub-divided into residential/commercial use and sold off in the open market by political parties. Can anyone imagine doing something similar in Hyde Park or Central Park? Built environment professionals need to wake up and protect what is in their domain. Corruption in government land, town-planning and building control must be tackled on a war-footing. What will our future generations think of us, sitting around passively while all the above was going on?

AT: So is the future bleak? Is there no hope?
Roland deSouza: Hope springs eternal in the human breast. But we must realize that it is not enough to merely hope for the best, or to believe that ‘science’ will provide the solution (after all, most of the mess has been created by science!) We have the intelligence and the capability to understand what is good for us and what we need to do. Do we have the will?

AT: What are your comments on the starting of this ‘Newage Engineers’ Interview’ series? Do you think young professionals, particularly students, will benefit from it?
Roland deSouza: It has great potential. Professionals of all types will learn about the thinking, problems and priorities of others, and relationships should improve. Young engineers will be encouraged by what others in their fields have been able to achieve.  And the circulation of Archi Times will improve!

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