KARACHI: There’s Bollywood music blaring from somewhere. The tables at an outdoor tea stall are packed and waiters rush back and forth with steaming cups in hand. A corncob seller does brisk business at his pushcart. The street is full of cars and people. Every evening, this section of Tauheed Commercial in Defence Housing Authority Phase V throbs with activity, with the anticipation of making an overnight profit. It is a casino of sorts – except that instead of roulette and blackjack, it is a game of real estate that is creating the buzz. The name of that real estate: Bahria Town Karachi (BTK), a sprawling, upmarket gated community being constructed off the Super Highway in the outer reaches of Pakistan’s largest city.
Scores of real estate agencies line two or three streets in Tauheed Commercial, almost all of them emblazoned with the Bahria Town Ltd logo. Many among them are authorised dealers for Bahria Town real estate.
“A 125-square yard space in Midway Commercial has gone up by Rs.9 million in the two years since it came on the market,” said an agent about investment prospects in BTK. “In two years, I guarantee you, it’ll be Rs.80m.”
Another gleefully says that “there is almost no plot left unsold, even in the recently announced Sports City [a neighbourhood within BTK]”. Incidentally, one of these real estate agencies, run by two brothers, is also known for its very large hawala transactions for specific clients.
Even the registration forms for new projects in BTK are big business. According to a land official, “Each form can sell for over Rs.100,000, generating billions in sale and trade of the registration forms alone.”
The multibillion-rupee enterprise known as Bahria Town Karachi depends for its success on the brazen manipulation of the law by the political elite and land officials who, hand-in-glove with influential figures in the establishment, are using the state’s coercive powers to deprive rightful owners of their land.
To add insult to injury, all this skullduggery is being packaged as ‘development’.
Land authorities and Bahria Town (Pvt) Ltd have colluded in violating multiple laws to facilitate a massive land grab in Pakistan’s largest city.
On March 19, around midday, several police mobiles led by Inspector Khan Nawaz surrounded Juma Morio goth, a small village of about 250 houses in deh Langheji, district Malir, about 13 kilometres north of the Super Highway. They were accompanied by bulldozers, wheel loaders and dump trucks.
Their objective: to demolish a number of huts and make way for a Bahria Town road through the village. “The job was quickly completed and the rubble hauled away while hapless villagers looked on in a daze, knowing full well there will be no justice for them,” said Ameer Ali, one of the residents.
Just two days earlier, the villagers had expressed their fears to Dawn that they would soon be forced from their land.
“The police have been arresting our people, threatening them that they’ll show their arrest as being from places such as Wana, Mastung or Kalat,” said Kanda Khan Gabol. “They took me into custody for several hours and only let me go when a crowd gathered and it seemed as if the highway would be closed down.”
The problems for the villagers began on Feb 9, when they had resisted the first attempt by personnel from Bahria Town and the Malir Development Authority (MDA) – accompanied by a large contingent of police and bulldozers – to have the way cleared for a road through Juma Morio.
In response, MDA officials lodged an FIR in which they accused Kanda Khan Gabol, Ameer Ali and a dozen other villagers of firing at them.
Even though the challan did not furnish, amongst other things, any proof of MDA’s ownership of the land in question, Judge Sher Muhammad Kolachi ordered the inclusion of Section 6(2)C(L)(M) of the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 in the criminally defective FIR.
Many of the accused remain on the run and that was the reason, villagers claim, they were unable to resist the March 19 demolition.
Juma Morio is only the latest village to have fallen victim to such tactics to grab communal land that has been home to families since generations.
Villages in the surrounding area of district Malir are rife with similar accounts of residents being harassed and intimidated into selling or abandoning their land.
Despite the fact that many have land documents to prove their claims of possession, as well as agricultural leases to till the land, resistance is ruthlessly countered. Homes have been levelled, graveyards obliterated, fruit trees uprooted, and tube wells smashed.
Late one night in November last year, a number of police mobiles and APCs descended on Ali Mohammed Gabol goth. Breaking into the homes of sleeping residents, policemen hauled off five villagers – Din Mohammed, Abbas, Iqbal, Punno and Dadullah – in their vehicles. “Not only that, along with money, jewelry and other belongings, they also took away three goats,” said Mohammed Musa. “That was a kind of warning that next time they would cart away our women as well.”
The raid was the sequel to events of a few days earlier when a police contingent, also led by Inspector Khan Nawaz, had surrounded the village to force them to vacate the land for a road to be constructed through it, which the villagers had refused to do.
Instead, they filed a petition in the Sindh High Court (SHC), pleading that MDA, Bahria, and police be restrained from “interfering, encroaching upon, harassing or blackmailing the petitioners, their families and dispossessing them from their lawful possession of their land”.
According to their families, Malir police would not give them any information about the detained men’s whereabouts when they went to the police station in the morning. In desperation they turned to the local PPP representatives, who told them that the price for the missing men’s freedom was to give up their land. “What choice did we have except to surrender?” asked one of the villagers.
Gul Hasan Kalmati, a local historian and chronicler asked in anguish: “According to what law is this opulent complex being constructed for well-to-do-people at the cost of local residents’ ruin and displacement? Is this how the PPP rewards its loyal voters?”
Crushed under BTK’s massive footprint
Juma Morio and Ali Mohammed Gabol are among at least 45 goths (villages) that fall within the areas of four dehs of former Gadap Town that are now part of district Malir, and are being affected one way or another by the construction of BTK.
These hamlets are home to people who in many cases have lived on these collectively owned spaces since well over a century: their graveyards and shrines are testament to their ancient, customary right to the land.
Malir, which measures 2,557 square kilometres or 631,848 acres, is Karachi’s largest district. Much of it comprises agricultural land, nullahs, hills and wildlife sanctuaries, including parts of Kirthar National Park. Agriculture, poultry farming and livestock rearing bring in meager earnings that are shared amongst goth residents.
Needless to say, their voices have no currency with the elite, and there are few government facilities provided to them.
Many of the goths have not been regularised – that is, they are as yet not sanctioned under the Goth Abad Scheme – a status that can confer distinct advantages.
“Regularisation gives goth residents land title, which means they can’t be evicted as before,” said Anwar Rashid, director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). “Even if developers use strong-arm tactics, regularisation means that the cost of the land increases ten-fold, sometimes even more.”
Since 2006, until her murder in 2013, Perween Rahman, the then OPP director and ardent defender of Karachi’s resources and its marginalised millions’ right to basic services, had started to painstakingly document the many goths in Karachi, including those in Gadap, with the help of OPP staff (Documentation is invaluable, for it is the first step in the process of getting goths regularised.)
“Development doesn’t come from concrete!” she would often say. “It comes from human development.”
Until Ms Rahman’s death, the OPP team had managed to document 1,131 goths in Karachi, out of which 817 were in Gadap alone, where BTK continues to expand. Of the Gadap villages, 518 have so far been regularised. Since Ms Rahman’s death however, that process has come to a standstill.
And that suits the preferred modus operandi of ‘developers’ very well. When unregularised goths come in their way, they have the residents evicted wholesale from the land, at the most with a pittance as ‘compensation’.
Never before, however, has there been a residential complex quite like the mammoth BTK being constructed by the company that is owned by the redoubtable Malik Riaz.
Physical GPS surveys by Dawn, using Bahria’s on-site markers as a guide – as well as interviews with locals – reveal that at present, BTK sprawls across more than 93 sq kms or 23,300 acres (see map).
However, the company has purchased only 7,631 acres in Karachi from private parties – as per statements given to Dawn last year by a senior official from Bahria, Colonel (retired) Khalilur Rehman, as well as a legal aide to Mr Riaz.
Even this claim, as this story will demonstrate, is patently false as this area is only held through a special power of attorney.
There was no response by Bahria to questions put to it by Dawn about BTK or to the subsequent reminder.
Located just off the Super Highway, 9kms beyond Toll Plaza, the complex’s wide thoroughfares, generously proportioned residential schemes, commercial belts, 36-hole international standard golf course and the world’s seventh largest mosque promise a utopian existence away from the urban jungle of Karachi proper.
Flagrant violations of the law
Unethical and inhumane as it is, driving residents out of goths is only one aspect of the story behind BTK’s massive footprint on the outskirts of the city.
The following is an exposé of how the powers that be, as well as corrupt officials from the Board of Revenue (BoR) Sindh, MDA, the district administration and police have all colluded with Bahria in various ways to make a colossal fortune off government land.
BoR Sindh is the original custodian of all land in the province. Besides collecting revenue and maintaining land records, it is the conduit for allotment of land to individuals, societies and various institutions and development agencies, such as the Karachi Development Authority, Defence Housing Authority Karachi, MDA, etc to develop schemes for specific purposes.
MDA – whose chairman during 2014 and 2015 was Sharjeel Inam Memon by virtue of being minister for local government and rural development – was set up for the purpose of developing land allotted to it by BoR Sindh in district Malir.
Legally, MDA – as per the Malir Development Authority Act 1993 under which it functions – cannot hand over to private developers any land that has been entrusted to it for specific purposes.
The aforementioned law repeatedly reiterates that MDA’s schemes are meant for the “socio-economic upliftment” of the “people of that area”.
On Nov 28, 2012, during the proceedings of the ongoing Karachi unrest case 16/2011, the Supreme Court, with good reason, issued an order banning the Sindh government from issuing any lease, or effecting any allotment, transfer or mutation etc of government land.
Subsequently however, the PPP government in Sindh took a number of steps that appear to clearly indicate attempts to hoodwink the court.
Firstly, the MDA Act 1993 was amended on Dec 19, 2013, apparently so that MDA could achieve behind the scenes what BoR, Sindh as a provincial government department, could not with the court restrictions on its powers vis-à-vis allotment of land.
A few days later, on Dec 26, 2013, vide a notification, BoR Sindh declared 43 dehs within district Malir as being “controlled” by MDA “for the purpose of physical survey & preparation of road network/land used (sic) plan…for adjustment of affected private/acquired state land for development purpose…”
According to records available with Dawn, then Senior Member BoR (SMBR) Sindh Ahmad Bukhsh Narejo wrote at least three letters warning MDA that it could not deal with private land owners “until and unless [MDA] gets the land allotted/ transferred from the government of Sindh and the same entered in the record of rights”.
In March 2015, BoR “reserved” 14,617 acres of land for MDA. [‘Reservation’ is an initial step towards allotment: the latter entails payment of cost to BoR amongst other obligations.]
This was also stated by the current SMBR Rizwan Memon on March 9, 2016 to a three-member SC bench hearing the Karachi unrest case.
What Mr Memon neglected to mention was that the reservation of the said area, scattered over nine different dehs, was only for the purpose of developing “incremental housing schemes” (ie low-cost housing schemes with plots not exceeding 120 square yards). This fact was included in a subsequent summary to the Sindh chief minister.
As per the Sindh government land grant policy notification number 09-294-03/SO/-1/719 dated Nov 10, 2010, all government land must be allotted at no less than market price, with the exception of land for incremental housing schemes for which concessional rates of at least 25pc of market value are to be applied.
During the hearings on the Karachi unrest case, MDA has claimed it paid BoR nearly Rs2 billion as 25pc of the market price as fixed by the latter for incremental housing, in payment for the above reserved land.
The Disposal of Plots Rules 2006 framed under the MDA Act 1993 also specify that plots reserved for incremental housing shall be disposed of at a price not less than 25pc of the market price, and only through balloting.
Meanwhile, according to Hakim Baloch – PML-N MNA from Malir – sometime back in 2013, three men had set up an office in Jokhio Goth, inside Model Colony, Malir.
“They included Sohail Memon, Sajid Jokhio [PPP MPA] and Mohammed Ali Shah [recently posted as deputy commissioner Malir] who had been tasked by [the powers that be] to acquire both privately owned and government survey land from all over Malir.”
The land was to be ultimately used by individuals closely connected to Bahria for developing BTK.
That set in motion perhaps the most egregious violation of the law committed by MDA officials to specifically favour Bahria, which was their application of the principle of ‘consolidation’.
Consolidation is otherwise a legitimate course for BoR to facilitate a tiller by exchanging his scattered pieces of agricultural land with a consolidated piece of land, which, according to the Colonisation of Government Lands Act 1912, should not exceed 16 acres in a nearby area.
Moreover, as per Section 17 of the Colonisation Act, “the land so taken in exchange shall … be deemed to be held on the same conditions and subject to the same obligations as the surrendered land was held”.
The Dec 19, 2013 amendment to the Act empowers MDA to consolidate land – a power earlier only vested in BoR Sindh – specifically through addition of clause ff in Section 2 of the Act, which defines consolidation of land as “adjustment of plots in a scheme by way of exchange or otherwise for the purpose of the scheme”.
Disposal of Plots Rules 2006 framed under the MDA Act further defines “plot” as specifically a “residential plot (not exceeding 600 square yards), residential commercial plot (not exceeding one acre), commercial plot (not exceeding one acre), industrial plot (not exceeding 1,000 square yards), flat-site (not exceeding one acre) in any scheme”.
The same rules define “scheme” specifically as a scheme prepared, undertaken or executed under the MDA Act that must be approved and sanctioned by the government.
However, instead of consolidating the plots in square yards, MDA has clubbed thousands of acres of privately held lands and consolidated them for an all-for-profit, commercial development.
Concept of land consolidation reimagined
To achieve the above, the demigods of Sindh and MDA have attempted to twist the concept of ‘consolidation of land’ by framing regulations that – instead of furthering the objectives of the original legislation – are, on the contrary, in direct contravention of Section 2, clause ff of the MDA Act 1993 as amended on Dec 19, 2013 and MDA rules 2006.
They have done this by giving to the director general MDA the power to consolidate private lands over government lands.
To add insult to injury, the agricultural lands have been consolidated for residential or commercial and not agricultural purposes – a violation of the basic intention underlying the principle as mentioned in Section 17 of the Colonisation Act 1912.
In fact, the entire modus operandi reeks of mala fide intentions. The MDA Act 1993 even as amended in 2013 allows ‘consolidation’ of its lands for MDA schemes only.
During 2014, MDA followed up this sleight of hand by placing notices in several newspapers announcing requests for consolidation of ostensibly bona fide pieces of private land in far-flung dehs of district Malir.
There are also MDA notices announcing “confirmation of ownership title” and thereby approval of such consolidation to the prime area off the Super Highway where BTK is located.
Either some or all four of the following names are invariably mentioned in these notices as the owners of the consolidated land: Shahid Mehmood; Mohammed Owais; Waqas Riffat and Waseem Riffat.
The notices also mention that Zain Malik “executive director of Bahria Town Pvt Ltd” has “special power of attorney of the owners”.
However, several retired and serving government officials even doubt the authenticity of the original title documents used for the above consolidation.
“Fake form 7s have been drawn up in the office of [a senior local government official] for the purpose of consolidation and devouring of state lands,” disclosed a Sindh government land official.
In many instances, the various pieces of land being consolidated/exchanged are located in some of the northernmost dehs of district Malir, such as in Kund, Moidan and Mehar Jabal where land is worth no more than Rs20,000 per acre.
But they have been shifted and consolidated in four dehs off the Super Highway – namely, Kathore, Langheji, Bolari and Konkar – where land values can be up to even 100 times more. According to Dawn investigations, there is no differential being charged from those seeking the consolidation.
Moreover, these various pieces of consolidated land adding up to 7,631 acres have been cunningly placed over land in the four dehs in a scattered manner that enables Bahria to encroach upon the surrounding areas, which so far total 23,300 acres of land. (In comparison, the total area of Karachi’s district central is merely 69 sq kms or 17,050 acres.)
And that’s not all. The major roads, boulevards, culverts and bridges in the gated BTK are being constructed at the cost of MDA, as confirmed by senior officials from the local government department as well as MDA.
From this outrageous trampling of the law and fraudulent land transactions arise the following questions, among many others: how did MDA consolidate land in Malir in 2014 when, as admitted in court by the Senior Member Board of Revenue, Sindh and as per documents available with Dawn, the land in nine dehs was only reserved for it in March 2015 – in other words, how could MDA consolidate private land against government land that did not even belong to the Authority?
And why has BoR continued to allow the theft of government land to take place under its very nose, announced through advertisements in several media outlets?
Also, where is the title of these huge chunks of land in Bahria Town Ltd’s name that the company is going about selling plots, and constructing villas and farmhouses on it?
And how has MDA approved the layout plan for a private commercial township that does not even own the very land it is selling?
Bahria did not respond to any of the questions sent by Dawn about BTK or to the reminder sent subsequently.
The queries sought information about title to and acreage of the land being sold as Bahria Town Karachi, development of BTK infrastructure being financed by MDA and allegations of inexpensive land from distant dehs being consolidated on prime areas off Super Highway for Bahria.
Stealing from Karachi’s scarce resources
Acquiescent government officials have not only smoothed the way in land acquisition for the project: they have also colluded with Bahria to provide facilities, such as water, to the vast township, so that its road dividers, parks and golf course continue looking lush and verdant.
“Four three-inch diameter connections have been already given for the benefit of BTK from the Dumlottee intersection,” revealed a deputy managing director at the Karachi Water and Sewage Board.
This is Karachi’s water, and its diversion to BTK will cut into the already inadequate supplies to the 20-million strong city, where residents are either dependent on exorbitantly priced tankers to get water – yet another mafia – or stand at communal taps to obtain and store water for their daily use.
According to Mohammad Saleem, president of the Voice of Indigenous Community Empowerment, a group of citizens affected by the swallowing up of land belonging to indigenous people in and around Karachi, Bahria has sunk deep wells that are fast depleting the underground water, the only source of water in the area, for villages situated even miles away.
Twelve years ago, in Suit No. 567/2004 filed at the SHC by the Sindh Institute of Urology & Transplantation and Others through Qazi Faez Isa (now a Supreme Court judge), the court restrained Nestle Pakistan from setting up a water bottling plant in NaClass No. 106, deh Chuhar, Malir.
The judgement, issued on Nov 30, 2004, stated that “once the process of extracting the water in such a huge quantity is allowed to operate, each day, each hour, and each minute water deposits in the aquifer would diminish rapidly and shall adversely affect the rights of plaintiffs to use the underground water according to their genuine needs which shall amount to an irreparable loss to them”.
If allowed to be set up, the Nestle plant would have been situated only three kms from BTK as the crow flies.
It is already too late for Faiz Mohammed Gabol at Noor Mohammed goth. “These people are the progeny of the pharaohs,” he said, his wizened face creased with fury and despair.
“The first time they approached me for my land, it was Tappi [former president Asif Ali Zardari’s adopted brother] who came here. When I refused to sell, he abused me roundly.”
On Faiz Mohammed’s 56 acres of land, tilled by his father and grandfather before him, there were once hundreds of fruit trees and date palms.
On 13 March 2014, he looked on helplessly as bulldozers leveled the orchards, carted away his tall date palms and destroyed his tube well.
Also in attendance were MDA officials and retired military personnel in the employ of Bahria Town Ltd. Now, he has been left with little but to gaze with bitterness at the apartment blocks coming up where his orchards used to be.
Destroying heritage sites and the environment
The 23,000-plus acres so far ‘acquired’ by BTK are also home to scores of historical sites, including tombs similar to the Chawkandi necropolis near Thatta, as well as Buddhist stupas, rock carvings etc.
Every tomb in the path of construction has been ruthlessly scooped up by bulldozers and cast aside like trash.
Their centuries-old symbolic markers and motifs have not stayed the juggernaut of ‘development’ and bottomless greed.
According to historian Gul Hasan Kalmati, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai – the revered Sufi mystic widely regarded as the greatest poet of the Sindhi language – had stayed in this area. “His takia (shrine), which was located here, was also a resting place for jogis on their way to Hinglaj Mata [the Hindu temple in Makran],” he recalled.
Today, on the spot where the Shah’s takia was located, say locals, stand the toilets of BTK’s Grand Mosque.
In this real-life game of Monopoly, the topography of the area is also being reshaped. This is an undulating landscape with many perennial streams and nullahs that fall into the Malir river. Many of the hills are being ground down in keeping with BTK’s commercialisation requirements.
Future plans reportedly include altering the course of at least some of the streams and nullahs, which could pose catastrophic risks to the environment besides adversely impacting the area’s wildlife.
Mohammad Sharif Burfat, security supervisor for Bahria phase 4, who lives in a nearby village just across the Karachi-Jamshoro border, told Dawn that development in his phase may still be several months away.
On March 9, 2016 a NAB representative informed the SC bench hearing the Karachi unrest case that at least 104,000 plots have already been sold by Bahria. Most of the investors in BTK belong to the middle and lower middle-classes of Sindh, especially Karachi.
For those in the know, the reality is that the red-hot speculation in BTK is being deliberately driven by a strategy similar to that which major players in the stock market employ when they manipulate share prices.
Raheel, a real estate agent, explained how the prices of BTK plots are manipulated. “Small investors are periodically offered ever higher prices, knowing full well that those who have put in their limited savings would hope to make a considerable profit in the long term and will not want to sell,” he said.
"Instead, they would be happy to know that their property has already appreciated reasonably. This also induces genuine investor demand.”
He added that prices are crashed at opportune times by flooding the market or by merely generating adverse rumours. “This is part of ‘satta’, a tactic used to set new price benchmarks and generate quick premiums. It’s also an extremely effective marketing strategy.”
“The price of a plot in BT Rawalpindi which a friend of mine bought for Rs5m is currently down by half, but there are no takers,” comments Brigadier Iftikhar, an old hand at the game.
Notwithstanding the sordid reality behind Bahria, it seems that those who can, and should, take urgent action against such scandalous land grabs are choosing to look the other way.
Several residents of the area, however, say that is not surprising. “When Malik Riaz can boast with impunity about the bribes he has paid to some of the most powerful in the country, what hope of redressal is there for the dispossessed and the toiling masses of this land?” asked one of them dejectedly.
Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2016