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A home truth

March 17, 2017


I LOVE the Pakistan Army for many reasons, but what has prompted this confession here is our military’s direct or indirect involvement in real estate business. Let me clarify from the very outset that there is nothing tongue-in-cheek intended in this statement and I have very valid reasons for appreciating the military for its involvement in real estate.

It is often criticised in print and electronic media for its role in the real-estate business. Recently, even former army chief (retd) Gen Raheel Sharif was criticised for being allotted agricultural land near Lahore, which for many is legal but not legitimate.

Some even termed it institutional corruption, which is debatable as the rewards have been well earned by the general over the course of more than four decades of military service. After all, there is some personal privilege that needs to be extended to keep people motivated; it cannot all be left to patriotism and the spirit of sacrifice. We are human beings with human needs and aspirations. Expecting a general or a judge to be absolutely beyond these considerations is being too wishful.

For many civil servants, a retirement home is a pipe dream.

Now, let me narrate what real institutionalised dishonesty is and how people are exploited and robbed of their hard-earned savings right under the nose of the federal government. Take the example of the Federal Government Employees Housing Foundation (FGEHF), a public-sector organisation working under auspices of the Ministry of Housing and Works. Its objective is to develop housing schemes for federal government employees and other specified groups, on a self-financed ownership basis. Since its inception in 1989, the FGEHF has announced many projects in Islamabad, Karachi and Peshawar. The fact that it is associated with the government makes it easy for people to trust the foundation and invest their money in various schemes announced by it.

Civil servants nearing retirement are awarded plots on the basis of seniority in terms of age and rank. Towards the fag end of their careers, they believe the pipe dream of finally being able to build a house where they can spend a blissful retired life. The society announces plots for government employees through draw and the successful applicants pay all the dues such as the cost of land and development charges through easy instalment plans. It seems to be a very good arrangement keeping in view the moderate salaries of government employees. The reality, it seems, is different.

In time, the lucky, or should I say unlucky, individuals who are allotted plots reach the age of superannuation and the wait for the promised plot goes on. They hope to get the reward of their investment in their lifetime even though the plot or development is invisible. These gentlemen start making queries but the foundation keeps on raising the demand for more money such as development charges or possession charges.

G-14, a residential sector in Islamabad, is one example where government servants were allotted plots more than 15 years ago but possession of plots has still not been given despite the full payment being made a decade ago. The case of E-12 — another sector announced by FGEHF in Islamabad — is a tragic one as the allottees have been awaiting development of the infrastructure for as long as 26 years. Many have died waiting. This is not all, recently allegations of out-of-turn allotment of plots bypassing the seniority list, as well as allotment on land that does not exist, have surfaced as well.

Many criticise certain private housing societies for shady land-grabbing deals but it must be acknowledged that many do deliver what they promise to their clients, something that the government fails to do. Schemes like the FGEHF should be disbanded and han­ded over to some private real estate developer because here again the civilian government has failed.

For obvious reasons, such criminal neglect and inefficiency only hurts those who serve the state honestly and diligently. It is pertinent to point out that this is how we reward our sincere public servants, thanks to whose efforts some modicum of governance in this country is still present. Rather than criticising the army for taking care of those who put in years of service for the institution, both civil society and the media should point out what needs to improve rather than taking down what is already doing well.

Lastly, if the government plans to continue with the way things are then instead of teaching subjects like economics, statistics, and public administration during training at the Civil Services Academy, it should consider training the young civil servants as samanas — the ascetic wanderers Buddha is believed to have spent his formative years with — because the kind of selfless service the public and the government expects from poor civil servants can only be achieved by becoming the Buddha no less.

The writer is a former civil servant.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2017