Suburban disaster

Published September 28, 2015
The writer teaches politics at LUMS.
The writer teaches politics at LUMS.

A FEW weeks ago, the Supreme Court admonished the administration of Defence Housing Authority (DHA), Lahore for dubious land acquisition and transfer practices, as well as a lack of transparency in its management.

As a result, the authority was forced to put up adverts in all major newspapers warning its clients that the ownership status of about 160 kanals of land in Phase VII (Lahore) was under contestation. The court also asked the auditor general to audit the real estate developer’s finances, on account of it being a statutory body.

In the same week, reports came in from Sangatpura village, located on the eastern fringe of Lahore, of a disruption in water supply and a barricading of the main entry road at the hands of DHA officials.

This was allegedly done to force villagers into selling their remaining agricultural and homestead land to fuel DHA’s expansion eastwards towards Barki and Bed­ian. There was no follow-up to the story, so the extent of its veracity or its conclusion remains a mystery.

These are just two incidents out of many that cast a long shadow on the practices of one of Pakistan’s biggest real estate development organisations. This shadow, by virtue of association, also ends up extending onto the professionalism and character of the armed forces.

Between a senior air force official inaugurating a luxury apartment building project in Karachi, rumours of the Lahore Development Autho­rity being pressured into rezoning agricultural land for a new, air force-managed housing scheme, and the DHA’s dubious acquisition and transfer practices making headlines, the idea of a military solely focu­sed on external defence stands severely undermined.

The DHA model of urban development poses a number of problems.

Any armed forces that claim to be professional (ie focused on the one job that they actually are mandated to do), occupationally driven and internally transparent, cannot also be — to put it delicately — dabbling in commercial land development.

There is no precedence of this in the history of professional, modern armies. Only praetorian ones, which see themselves as more than just part of the state apparatus, engage in such ventures, and they end up losing their professionalism.

Perhaps our honourable COAS, a paradigm shifter and game-changer par excellence, would want to take a look into this particular aspect as well. (Though, I daresay, the oppo­sition he may encounter from many vested interests within and without may be a hurdle too tall even for him.)

In the world beyond military professionalism and institutionalised corruption, an impending challenge the country faces is the ecological pressure this DHA paradigm of land development places on our cities and towns.

Just to be clear, DHA is not the only land developer catering to the elite by building spacious gated communities, with vast avenues, unrealistic ‘green areas’ and large plot sizes, but it has certainly shaped market forces in a particular, affluent-focused direction.

Even in instances where the principal developer is another party (such as Bahria Town), DHA’s involvement crops up in the shape of joint ventures, as seen in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

There are three basic reasons why this particular model of urban development poses a number of environmental, social, and political problems. The first relates to the pressure gated communities for the affluent exert on our water resources.

Large houses with sprawling lawns draw in excess amount of water for ‘maintenance’ and ‘beautification’ purposes, thus putting an already falling urban water table under further pressure. Pakistan is a country that faces an acute water crisis, with a per capita availability of only 1,017 cubic metres, which is dangerously close to the scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic metres.

In Lahore alone, the location for major suburban development by DHA and others, the water table has fallen by 21 metres in the last eight years.

Another environmental concern relates to emissions and congestions as a result of ever-increasing motor vehicular traffic coming into the city from the suburbs.

This creates choke points at particular locations, and pushes the government to undertake more road-related infrastructure projects, thus diverting scarce resources from more socially optimal use.

On the social and cultural side, affluent families locking themselves up in gated communities creates a high culture that privileges a particular kind of lifestyle.

Aspirational middle-class households thus seek to emulate such modes of living, and end up spending greater amounts of their energy and savings trying to attain the same suburban dream, using slightly less expensive developers.

No wonder that the northern fringe of Karachi, and both the eastern and south-western fringe of Lahore are now full of housing societies trying to match the DHAs and Bahrias of the country, at least in terms of aesthetics.

Finally, on the political and economic front, with real estate becoming a lucrative avenue for profiteering, large chunks of investable capital are devoted to the ‘plot-and-file’ business, rather than to productive businesses that create actual value.

Accompanying this profiteering impulse is the long-term damage such growth causes to the low-income housing market. Developers see higher margins in catering to the affluent through gated community development, and thus cater exclusively to that particular segment.

No wonder, that 67pc of the existing housing stock in the country is accessible only to some 10pc of households.

Supporters of DHA-type suburbanisation will argue that the army-controlled developer is simply catering to pre-existing market demand. It offers a product which is clearly coveted, and we can’t fault it for that. From a purely economistic view of the world, we probably can’t.

But if we introduce moral, ethical, and long-term survival concerns, then behemoths such as DHA and Bahria have actively shaped market demand in an unsustainable direction. The state may need to step in and disincentivise such development if it wishes to avert an ecological and socio-political catastrophe in the future.

The writer teaches politics at LUMS.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, September 28th , 2015

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