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490 acres of mangroves across the Gizri creek will be incorporated into DHA’s ever-expanding boundaries. - Photo by AFP
490 acres of mangroves across the Gizri creek will be incorporated into DHA’s ever-expanding boundaries. - Photo by AFP

KARACHI: A land grab of monumental proportions is under way not far from the prime strip of real estate along Gizri Creek that constitutes the Defence Housing Authority (DHA), Karachi, Phase 7 (extension) and Phase 8. If all goes according to plan, 490 acres of mangroves across the creek will be incorporated into DHA’s ever-expanding boundaries, following which they will be chopped down, and the area used for the major portion of a lavish waterfront project.

Known as Waterfront Developments, the project has been devised to make huge fortunes for a select few, enormously powerful individuals, while giving short shrift to citizens’ rights and further decimating one of Karachi’s most valuable natural assets, its mangrove forests.

According to a petition filed against it in the Sindh High Court by advocate Mahfooz Yar Khan, the waterfront project involves a deal according to which some of the area will be acquired by DHA on payment while part of the remainder is to be developed by DHA and returned to the owner/s and the rest retained by DHA.

The parcelling out among political and military heavyweights of what should be protected land, and the manner in which the story has unfolded shows an astounding contempt for the law by all concerned.

Map of DHA Phase VIII developed by Zavia Architects
Map of DHA Phase VIII developed by Zavia Architects

For one, about 342 acres within the 490 earmarked for the waterfront project have been in litigation since 1996, and the entire saga is one of shady benami contracts, manipulation of land records and under-the-table deals involving hundreds of millions of rupees.

Secondly, there have been a number of judgements by the superior courts against cutting down mangrove forests. Apart from being hatcheries for fish and shrimp, mangroves are a natural buffer against sea erosion and destruction by the elements. “The Indian Forestry Act of 1927, inherited by Pakistan in 1947, has many provisions to safeguard forests including mangroves,” said Dr Mohammed Ali Shaikh, former director general of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency. “The spirit of this and other laws is that forest area shall not be diverted for any non-forestry purpose except with the government’s approval.”

However, the newly designed master plan of DHA Phase 8, prepared by Zavia Architecture, includes the 490 acres of mangroves incorporated within it. Two bridges are also shown linking this off-shore area to mainland DHA.

A senior official at DHA categorically denied that any such town planning had been authorised by DHA. “If someone else has gone and done it, that’s their doing,” he said. “DHA has to hire consultants through open bidding on the town planning.”

But a source at the architecture firm said the map was presented to DHA Karachi’s executive board as well as senior military personnel, who are in the process of approving it.

The petition against the waterfront project names DHA and Board of Revenue (BoR) Sindh among the respondents. The BoR Sindh is a provincial government department and the original owner of all land in the province, and the controlling authority for collection of land revenue, preparation of land records, etc.

It is responsible for allotting land to individuals, organisations and agencies in the province for specific purposes. In reality, it has often colluded with unscrupulous ‘land developers’, an alliance that has rendered Karachi a multi billion-rupee playground for those with the right cards to play.

A contentious history

Satellite imagery of the plots 'A' & 'B'
Satellite imagery of the plots 'A' & 'B'

The story behind this mangrove forest goes back to 1994, when PPP’s Agha Tariq, then minister for mining, issued a 30-year mining lease for 342 acres (within the 490 acres now earmarked for the waterfront project) in the name of his wife, Gulnar Begum. In July 1996, through BoR Sindh, he had that lease illegally converted into a 99-year lease for commercial/residential/industrial purposes. Then, in September, through his wife, he sold the 342 acres to Marina City Developments, a partnership of businessmen Asif Baig Mohammed and Khalid Masood, and one Seema Treesa Gill.

“We wanted to develop the land into something better than the Dubai Marina, much before Dubai Marina even came up,” said Mr Masood.

According to court documents, the third partner, Ms Gill, was actually Gulnar Begum’s maidservant, an arrangement that gave the former de facto ownership in the 342 acres. In September 2007, Mr Tariq passed away.

There has been decades-long litigation over the 342 acres in various courts with regard to the allotment rate and, after a falling out between Mr Mohammed and Mr Masood, the issue of ownership as well. Court proceedings are still ongoing.

In the last few years another party has staked its claim to part of the 342 acres based on an agreement with one of the two businessmen. That case is also in the superior courts.

DHA enters the fray

Meanwhile, bizarre developments further muddied the waters. Sometime this year, the BoR shifted the 342 acres in litigation to four individuals along with an additional 148 acres of surrounding mangroves, adding up to a total of 490 acres, in a land swap for so-called ancestral land in the interior of Sindh. To do this, BoR officials manipulated land records and, in the process, also violated the ban on allotment of forest land under any circumstances.

The four individuals’ claim was based upon a document ostensibly dating back to 1937 — copies of which are in Dawn’s possession — that show 600 acres in interior Sindh as their ‘marosee’ (ancestral) land. Egregious factual errors in the text point to the document’s extremely questionable provenance. Among them is the mention of ‘District East of Karachi’: no such district existed in 1937. Besides this, court papers show the beneficiaries of this vast ancestral holding as residing, rather implausibly, in katchi abadis such as Metroville and Orangi where homes are no more than 100 square yards.

According to sources, the document from ‘1937’ was actually drawn up for the benefit of a powerful civil servant working with the late Jam Sadiq Ali during the latter’s tenure as Sindh chief minister “A benami contract with the four purported claimants makes him the actual beneficiary,” said a BoR official. “The current plan — the shifting of their claim to the mangrove forest area — was executed with help from [a well-connected political personality in Sindh], on an understanding to split the proceeds.”

In July this year, the actual beneficiaries used an investor and land developer from Bahawalpur with good connections in military circles to approach top DHA officials. These officials were more than keen to sign an MOU on developing the 490 acres, racing against time to close the deal because the tenure of the key officials was to expire in September and October. No wonder, for there is much at stake.

Even a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that proceeds from the project will be phenomenal. When the 490 acres (2.9 million sq yards) are incorporated into DHA Phase 8 and carved up into several hundred commercial and residential plots, their value will run into hundreds of billions of rupees.

(According to a source at DHA, the incoming DHA administrator, Brigadier Zubair Ahmed, had to cool his heels for a month before he was allowed to take charge on September 8.)

On Monday Sept 8, 2014, DHA officials deposited a pay order drawn on the National Bank of Pakistan for Rs11,979,000 as stamp duty payable to the treasury for purchasing the mangroves forest area. “Several BoR functionaries including the Registrar were accompanying them so that as soon as the stamps were affixed, registry of the sale deed could be made right there and then,” said Mr Yar Khan. “The original intention was to deposit the pay order on Saturday September 6. However, the transaction couldn’t go ahead as planned when the branch said the amount was too large and the pay order should be submitted the following Monday.”

When asked about this, a senior official at DHA said, “Yes, stamp duties have been paid but the sale deed has not been executed.” He added that could only happen after DHA was assured the land was free of any encumbrances and could be sold. However, it would be pertinent to ask how the stamp duty was calculated and why it was paid if the sale had not been finalised.

DHA is fully cognisant of the shady story behind the 490 acres it is eyeing for the waterfront project. Lt General Sajjad Ghani, who recently retired as Corps Commander Karachi and as President DHA Executive Board, was reportedly given a detailed account.

Perhaps the new DHA administrator, Brig Ahmed, will consider looking into the many questions raised by DHA’s latest venture. Unless of course, the fate of the mangroves has already been sealed by his higher-ups.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2014