A few months ago, former cricketer and current leader of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Imran Khan, approached the chief justice of Pakistan (CJP) to intervene against Islamabad’s municipal corporate authority, the Capital Development Authority (CDA). Khan’s main charge against the CDA was that it has failed to curb “encroachments” and “unplanned” constructions in his neighbourhood of Bani Gala, established over three decades ago as an elite residential community in one of Islamabad’s protected regions.
Given its history as a predominantly upscale neighbourhood built in violation of the original master plan of Islamabad, Bani Gala is periodically resurrected in public media as a shining example of how the privileged in Pakistan — from Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan to Imran Khan — freely flout the rule of law in this country. Bani Gala seems to be back in the news again, however, this time brought to public attention by Imran Khan himself in an effort to highlight what he terms as “municipal lawlessness that reigns supreme” in his neighbourhood.
An online copy of the alleged letter written by Imran Khan to the CJP reproduces the same lines of arguments that have been used to discourage and declare illegal the development of Bani Gala as an elite neighbourhood since the 1980s and 1990s. Firstly, in his letter to the CJP, Khan cites environmental degradation of Bani Gala through deforestation and encroachment on protected land as evidence of the CDA’s administrative incompetence.
Secondly, the letter identifies a rise in the “unplanned and unregulated” constructions in Bani Gala, lacking proper sewerage and waste disposal systems, which further threaten the environment of the region. Ironically these two charges levelled by Khan have previously been raised against the elite settlers of Bani Gala (including Khan himself) and largely put to rest through various legal means over the years.
A pristine neighbourhood today, the tale of Islamabad’s most elite locality begins with the grabbing of land before Islamabad’s development authority could get to it
Residents of Bani Gala have been traditionally accused of disturbing the ecosystem of the area by cutting down trees and dumping sewerage into Rawal Lake, a significant source of drinking water for the residents of Rawalpindi. Just this month, the contamination of Rawal Dam was again in the news after a large number of fish were found dead in the reservoir. As an important water source, Rawal Lake is protected under various laws that clearly prohibit construction in its immediate vicinity. For instance, in 1980, the federal government issued a notification declaring the area falling within two kilometres from the highest watermark of Rawal Lake a part of the Margalla Hills National Park. This notification needs to be read in conjunction with the Islamabad Wildlife Ordinance, 1979, which strictly prohibits clearing land of trees and plants for any purpose in the Margalla Hills National Park.
However, many mansions on the banks of Rawal Lake, including that of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, fall well within the two-kilometre water mark. What remains clear is that the CDA and other government departments are fairly inept and unmotivated to ascertain the location of the highest-water mark of Rawal Lake. Either way, Google Earth confirms that Imran Khan’s house is located atop a small private hill at a short distance from Rawal Lake. Satellite imagery also shows signs of deforestation and possible levelling of the hilltop to create a sprawling residence surrounded by a large grassy lawn, accessible through a private driveway. The elaborate configuration of this residential compound confirm that the freedom that Khan enjoyed in Bani Gala may not have been possible elsewhere in Islamabad’s planned residential areas, called ‘sectors,’ at least not along the exact same design parameters and certainly not for the same cost.
So why is Khan complaining to the CJP about the “unplanned and unregulated” development in Bani Gala, which he himself benefitted from not too long ago?
To better answer this question and appreciate the context of Khan’s complaint, we need to first understand the history of this neighbourhood. Long before Bani Gala developed into an elite neighbourhood in Islamabad, it was a small scenic village located on the south-eastern bank of Rawal Lake in the site reserved for the National Park in Islamabad.
The National Park was designated as a large open green space in the official master plan for Islamabad developed in 1960 by a Greek architect and planner Constantinos A. Doxiadis. The purpose of the National Park in Doxiadis’s master plan was to provide a large open space of respite and recreation to the citizens residing in the urbanised areas of Islamabad developed according to ‘sectors.’ Construction in the National Park area was limited to a few non-residential activities related to research, recreation and education.
Aesthetics or appearances play an important role in how encroachments are perceived, especially when it comes to differentiating between high- and low-end encroachments. For instance, while slums and squatter settlements fit public perceptions of unplanned encroachments, exclusive gated communities or mansions built illegally on urban peripheries in many cities in Pakistan can make claims of legitimacy on the basis of their planned appearances.
Even though Bani Gala was officially declared part of the National Park area at the time of construction of Islamabad in the 1960s, land in this region still belonged to local communities who had been living there for generations. For the CDA to develop Islamabad according to the official master plan, it first had to acquire land from these local communities. Although the CDA was able to acquire many villages next to Rawal Lake in the National Park area, Bani Gala remained un-acquired until it was discovered by a handful of affluent individuals interested in building their homes there.
The earliest elite homebuilders arrived in Bani Gala around the 1980s. At the time, the whole region was completely undeveloped. What attracted these earliest homebuilders of Bani Gala to this area was a combination of low land prices as compared to the CDA-developed sectors and a spectacular natural setting including trees, water and hills all within a short driving distance from Islamabad’s developed areas and their various services.
In exchange for a few thousand rupees per kanal, the early elite homebuilders of Bani Gala started buying vast plots of lands from local villagers for themselves, their friends and families. By using their personal resources and connections, over time these homebuilders of Bani Gala were able to build a new comfortable community of extravagant residences, serviced with basic infrastructure such as access roads, electricity and phone lines.
The early homebuilders — while confident of their ability to develop the Bani Gala region without the CDA’s formal assistance — carried out the construction of their houses by creating their own paper trail to prove the legitimacy of their constructions, should it be challenged at a later stage. New homebuilders of Bani Gala commonly used two forms of documentation to claim legitimacy of their constructions in land reserved for Islamabad’s National Park area. This included purchasing land directly from local villagers at a much lower price without involving the CDA and receiving approval for the construction of their houses in the National Park area from the chairman of the local union council of Bhara Kahu.
In Islamabad, urban areas (such as the sectors) are under the jurisdiction of the CDA while rural areas (such as Bani Gala) come under another government organisation called the Islamabad Capital Territory Administration (ICTA). The ICTA further delegates its administrative responsibilities to various union councils, which administer a group of villages each in Islamabad. Even though the union councils are administratively in charge of all rural areas in Islamabad, including Bani Gala, they hold no legal authority to permit any new construction in areas under their jurisdiction. The power to approve new construction resides solely with the CDA.
However, by gaining approval from the chairman of the Bhara Kahu union council, and purchasing land directly from local villagers, the wealthy homebuilders of Bani Gala very creatively sidelined the CDA’s role from the development process and manipulated the existing land administration system and ownership structure in Islamabad.
They bought undeveloped land for a fraction of what it would have cost had the CDA acquired and developed the region first. They sought approval of the concerned union council chairman, not because they were interested in following the prescribed building procedures (otherwise they would have contacted the CDA, the highly visible corporate municipal authority in Islamabad) but because they wanted to create documentation legitimising their building activities.
Using their creative paper trail, the elite Bani Gala residents were ultimately able to legitimise their construction activities through an eight-year-long legal battle with the CDA after it launched an anti-encroachment drive against these residential constructions in the early 1990s.
After years of inactivity and half-hearted attempts to thwart new residential constructions in Bani Gala, the CDA carried out an aggressive anti-encroachment operation in 1992 in order to forcefully ‘acquire’ Bani Gala.
The operation went on for two days during which many houses were destroyed or damaged and several injuries and deaths were incurred due to an exchange of gunfire. Immediately after the bloody operation was over, the new residents and local villagers including the affected of the Bani Gala operation joined forces to take the CDA to court to stop further demolitions and its forced acquisition of their properties.
After a protracted legal battle, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) decided in favour of the residents of Bani Gala in 1998, a decision that was also upheld by the Supreme Court in 1999. While the IHC judge accepted the CDA’s authority in acquiring land from the residents of Bani Gala for the purpose of building the new capital city, it explained that the CDA could only do so by following proper procedure including the payment of adequate compensation to the homebuilders and property owners in Bani Gala at the prevailing market rates. This aspect of the court decision is generally considered as giving legitimacy to the new residential constructions in Bani Gala, since the high value of land and property in the neighbourhood makes it almost impossible for the CDA to ever acquire land according to prevailing market rates.
This legal decision had a significant impact on the official zoning regulations of Islamabad. According to the first zoning regulations called Islamabad Capital Territory Zoning Regulations 1992, the National Park area (including Bani Gala) fell within Zones 3 and 4, both declared as protected areas with no or limited non-residential constructions allowed.
Revisions were made to the 1992 zoning regulations in 2005, which introduced provisions for limited residential activity in Zone 4. However, more drastic amendments were made in 2010 to Zone 4 after a suo moto judgement in 2007 declared the earlier zoning regulations of Islamabad “unjust,” “unreasonable” and “discriminatory.” According to the 2010 amendments, it is now possible to build housing and commercial buildings in certain areas of Zone 4, which was once a part of the protected National Park area. This zoning amendment has also given the CDA legal authority to build its very own gated residential community called Park Enclave in Zone 4, among many other residential communities being developed by private developers in the once protected National Park region.
It is apparent from these recent changes in the zoning regulations for Zone 4 that the spirit of the National Park Area, as imagined by Doxiadis, has been severely compromised. The apparent ‘violations’ are now supported by legal regulations instituted by concerned authorities.
Based on legal decisions and changes in zoning regulations, residential and commercial constructions in Zone 4 are now legally possible. In this legal context, does it make sense for the CDA or other actors to insist on declaring Bani Gala illegal or blame its residents for violating the zoning regulations? What is confusing is the CDA’s assertion that new constructions in Zones 3 and 4 are illegal, as seen in its recent report submitted to the Supreme Court that declared Imran Khan’s residence illegal. For some reason, the CDA is perpetuating the myth that residential constructions in Zones 3 and 4 are prohibited when that is not the case, as selective building activity in Zone 3 and more active constructions in Zone 4 are legally underway now.
Returning to Khan’s recent appeal to the CJP, we may consider it to be illustrative of his frustration with the unhindered “encroachment” of the middle class on the once exclusive neighbourhood of Bani Gala. After the court decisions in late 1990s, Bani Gala attracted many more elite homebuilders to its scenic locations even as it opened its less desirable areas to a large number of middle-class people looking for affordable housing in Islamabad.
The arrival of a large number of the middle class naturally added more stress to this “unplanned and unregulated” area and drastically changed the density and demographics of this once exclusive neighbourhood. Whereas Imran Khan bought acres of land on top of a hill, and Dr Qadeer Khan along the banks of Rawal Lake, the middle-class is now buying marlas along narrow streets with no proper sewerage or renting apartments in jerry-built plazas. While Khan’s own house is located within a gated enclosure accessible through a private driveway, the only two approaches to this sanctuary are full of potholes and offer unsightly views of sewerage seepage and garbage strewn about as a result of the increased haphazard construction in the area.
This points to another dimension of the Bani Gala urban phenomenon: the aesthetic of encroachment. Aesthetics or appearances play an important role in how encroachments are perceived, especially when it comes to differentiating between high- and low-end encroachments. For instance, while slums and squatter settlements fit public perceptions of unplanned encroachments, exclusive gated communities or mansions built illegally on urban peripheries in many cities in Pakistan can make claims of legitimacy on the basis of their planned appearances.
For the Bani Gala elites, the aesthetic of encroachment has put them in a conundrum. The decision to live in an undeveloped region in Islamabad was made years ago by the elite homebuilders of Bani Gala when they chose to invest in the undeveloped region as opposed to one of the CDA developed sectors. The same decision was based on their desire to be a part of an “unregulated” Bani Gala, which offered them freedom and flexibility from the Doxiadis master plan and the CDA’s interference, and allowed them to design elaborate mansions, which did not conform to the strict building codes and regulations set by the CDA, on expansive sites with stunning views.
The problem for the elite of Bani Gala now is that while they may have the ability to encroach beautifully on top of hills and along lakes, their less-privileged neighbours mostly encroach in an unassuming manner. This may be the reason that prompted Imran Khan to complain to the CJP about the municipal ineffectiveness of the CDA, the same authority that was not formally consulted in the approval process of his own residence built in a protected ecological region in Islamabad.
If we set the aesthetics of “unregulated” urban development aside, how different are the elite mansions and the less-privileged housing in Bani Gala in disturbing the microenvironment of this area? Can we prioritize some forms of “unregulated” developments over others based on aesthetics alone?
Given the complicated legal history of this neighbourhood and changes in official zoning regulations of Islamabad over the years, imposing formal order on an informally developed neighbourhood like Bani Gala presents tremendous challenges. It also fails to acknowledge the now accepted truism in architectural and planning circles that planned cities conceived on paper are rarely, if ever, implemented according to their official master plans.
The insistence on such is simply foolish and can only result in unproductive debates. In order to truly save this neighbourhood (and other parts of Islamabad) from further environmental degradation and encroachment, a critical and honest assessment of the past policies of CDA officials, changes to Islamabad’s zoning regulations, and building practices of Bani Gala residents is needed. Using this neighbourhood for political objectives, such as, criticising corrupt elite or inefficient government authorities, will only reproduce the same misguided and futile narratives about Bani Gala as routinely covered in the media. Change will come through developing a culture of accountability that is not only targeted at the actions of others but also motivated by an evaluation of one’s own.
The writer teaches architectural and urban history at Hamilton College, NY. She can be reached over email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 30th, 2017