IT is ironic that while law-enforcement agencies pursue militants, another category of criminals has been for years operating with total impunity in the country. A report in this paper yesterday revealed that land grabbers in Sindh have been convicted in only five cases since 2010 — a fact all the more shocking because an anti-encroachment court and a special force in Karachi were established that year for conducting speedy trials of land grabbers and retrieving public property by demolishing illegal structures. So far, a mere 10 cases of land encroachment in Karachi have been registered this year: judging by the record, one can well imagine what the outcome is likely to be.
However, Pakistan’s largest city is not the only one where land grabbing is taking place. With the rise of the middle class and the subsequent boom in the requirement for residential accommodation — especially that ultimate symbol of upward social mobility, the ‘gated community’ — construction has become a bigger business than ever before in this country. In the process, the regulation of land has fallen victim to avaricious vested interests. Relevant authorities — rather than implementing zoning laws, safeguarding government land and green spaces, and ensuring that areas for low-cost housing are utilised for that purpose — are complicit in the wholesale plunder of land. They place their services at the disposal of powerful segments of the ruling elite, both civilian and otherwise, and corrupt development authorities to construct lavish housing complexes and expand existing neighbourhoods. The police, of course, are a vital cog in this thriving racket, using force, or the threat of force, to compel people into giving up their land.
The human cost of such criminal wrongdoing is enormous. When master plans are violated, the urban poor are squeezed to the fringes of cities and farmers in rural areas are forced off their land and deprived of their livelihood. Moreover, because the government has paid no heed to its duty to provide affordable housing to a growing population, the vacuum has been filled by another breed of land grabber in the informal sector — again in collusion with formal authorities — who has made a profitable business of supplying land for lower-income housing. Mushrooming on the outskirts of urban centres, these localities are magnets for those involved in drug smuggling, gunrunning etc. Then there is the environmental cost exacted by encroaching on protected land and natural drainage channels. Huge tracts of forest land outside Rawalpindi have been devoured by land grabbers while the once spectacular natural setting of Bani Gala in Islamabad has been similarly encroached on. Illegal construction on storm water drains prevents rainwater from exiting populated areas, resulting in urban flooding like that experienced in Karachi recently. Until the laws against land grabbing are strictly applied to whoever engages in it, we are allowing rapacious elements to compromise our future.
Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2017