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KASHMIR’S 12-YEAR WAIT FOR RELIEF

October 08, 2017
Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star
Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star

Faisal Jamil Kashmiri was chatting with a neighbour outside his home in Khawaja Mohalla, one of the oldest and thickly populated parts of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) capital, Muzaffarabad, when a devastating earthquake rocked northern Pakistan on the morning of October 8, 2005. Tens of thousands lost their lives, hundreds of thousands were injured, and countless others were rendered homeless.

Muzaffarabad was the worst-hit district in AJK due to its proximity to the epicentre of the quake. And within the municipal limits of Muzaffarabad, the entire old city — Khawaja Mohalla being part of it — was completely flattened.

Kashmiri’s three-storey house on a six-marla plot [about 150 sq yards] along a backstreet was home to three families, comprising 20 members. They included Kashmiri’s family, his parents and two siblings who lived on the ground floor, his younger uncle’s family of seven on the first floor, and his youngest uncle’s family of eight on the second.

The earthquake badly damaged the third storey, leaving his youngest uncle dead on the spot. Although the other members of the family remained unhurt, the structure became unliveable.

If the devastation of the October 8, 2005 earthquake wasn’t enough, many citizens of Azad Kashmir are still reeling from unfulfilled promises of new housing

After the burial of the deceased member, all three families moved to Rawalpindi — as almost all other survivors from the main old city had done — where they hired separate houses on rent.

Some eight months or so after the temblor, Kashmiri’s family returned to Muzaffarabad, to rebuild life bit by bit in the same dilapidated structure.

October, 2005: In the aftermath of the quake, most residents of Muzaffarabad turned landless in an instant. Many migrated elsewhere, only to return to the same spectacle of despair | Photos by Arif Mahmood/WhiteStar
October, 2005: In the aftermath of the quake, most residents of Muzaffarabad turned landless in an instant. Many migrated elsewhere, only to return to the same spectacle of despair | Photos by Arif Mahmood/WhiteStar

However, they were undecided about its reconstruction. This was because the AJK authorities had announced that it will develop six satellite towns along the Jhelum Valley Road to overcome the housing problem in the ruined AJK capital. Kashmiri also imagined that he’d be able to construct a new house in any of the proposed satellite towns because, back in the old city, authorities were not allowing the reconstruction of multi-storey — and in some cases, even a single storey — concrete structures.

But what initially appeared a justified call by the government has ever since haunted the residents of the old city. Even 12 years down the line, Kashmiri still lives in the same dangerous building, waiting for the day when the government would make good on its promise to resettle those affected by the earthquake.

And it’s not just Kashmiri’s story — tens of hundreds of affected families from the main old city could not and did not reconstruct their fallen houses or repair their damaged houses in anticipation of resettlement in the proposed satellite towns.

Take for example the woes of 32-year old Khawaja Junaid, now a junior grade employee of the forest department.

A view of the Langarpura Satellite Town from the left bank of the River Jhelum.
A view of the Langarpura Satellite Town from the left bank of the River Jhelum.

As the quake struck, Junaid’s two-storey house along a main thoroughfare in Sethi Bagh neighbourhood tumbled down in a wink, leaving him badly wounded and one of his two younger siblings dead. His parents and another sibling miraculously escaped unhurt.

Junaid remained under treatment in different hospitals over the next six months, following which, the family returned to Muzaffarabad and acquired a small house on rent.

It was the uncertainty about the official plans to widen different streets and roads under a master plan prepared by Japan International Agency for Cooperation (Jica) that prevented Junaid for a long time from utilising his small piece of land for inhabitation.

While the genuine beneficiaries do not see light at the end of the tunnel, the 20 percent plots for the previous landowners are said to be shifting hands ... without any formal allotment process, 233 plots have so far been sold out by previous owners in connivance with some unscrupulous officials in DAM.

At the end of his tether, he somehow managed to erect a tin-roof shelter on his small empty plot, and shifted therein. In the meanwhile, his parents died and he tied the knot and fathered a girl. He, too, desperately awaits allotment where he can move himself or his younger brother whose wedding plan has been put on hold because of their cramped accommodation.

THE SLOW CRAWL

Houses have sprung up on both sides of the Gojra Nullah. The watercourse was as vast as a playground about two decades ago, but today, it has been narrowed by constructions on both sides. Authorities say there are at least 1,000 families living in red zone, high hazardous areas and watercourses | Photos by Tariq Naqash
Houses have sprung up on both sides of the Gojra Nullah. The watercourse was as vast as a playground about two decades ago, but today, it has been narrowed by constructions on both sides. Authorities say there are at least 1,000 families living in red zone, high hazardous areas and watercourses | Photos by Tariq Naqash

Given the skyrocketing prices of real estate in Muzaffarabad — almost at par with the federal capital — it became next to impossible for a vast majority to buy a piece of land within the municipal limits and then build a modest house on it.

With landlessness a concern in almost every household in the old city, the government stepped in to provide relief. Or at least it pretended to having stepped in.

Official figures detail that there were as many as 750 families in the old city who used to inhabit multi-storey houses that are technically unliveable now. The government decided on constructing satellite towns and shifting the affected out of the old city and into the new settlements.

But things didn’t pan out the way citizens expected them to.

Three years passed after the quake before the federal government in 2008 released funds for the acquisition of land for these satellite towns. By that time, their number had been slashed to two.

Consequently, 1,625.4 kanals in Langarpura Village and 669.17 kanals in Thotha Village were acquired against 608.697 rupees and 266.211 million rupees, respectively [a kanal is approximately 500 sq metres]. Both villages are located some 10 kilometres south of Muzaffarabad along the right bank of the River Jhelum, and fall in the AJK Legislative Assembly’s constituency number 29.

According to initial plans, the affected families were to be gradually relocated from the most vulnerable and hazardous areas within the municipal limits of Muzaffarabad to the proposed towns. In the main old city, open spaces were to be created where people could rush to safety in the event of a similar calamity.

Things crawled ahead and three years after the money was released, a policy document was finally issued by the AJK government on July 30, 2011, to identify the categories of quake affectees who were eligible for allotment of plots in the two towns.

They included affectees of the (implementation of) master plan of Muzaffarabad city; projected population required to be accommodated in satellite towns; affectees of (possible) landslides in the municipal area of Muzaffarabad; affectees from the red zone/high hazardous areas; and 20 percent of the total acquired land (for satellite towns) for its previous owners.

October, 2005: Medical supplies being dispensed from a tent pharmacy manned by police officers
October, 2005: Medical supplies being dispensed from a tent pharmacy manned by police officers

According to that document, such affectees whose houses or tracts of land have been acquired by government for any official purpose, after payment of compensation, will be allotted plots in the satellite towns against the officially determined cost and development charges. However, it also adds that if they do not receive compensation of their house or piece of land, they will be provided plots free of cost.

The document also stipulates that affected persons living “out of compulsion” in the red zone or hazardous areas or along the main boundary thrust (MBT) where a minor jolt or torrential rains can wreak material and physical losses will also be entitled to free-of-cost plots in satellite towns, provided they surrender their vulnerable house or piece of land to the government without receiving any compensation. The landless or shelter-less survivors who have not received any compensation for their lost land will also be entitled to free-of-cost allotment of plots. It also categorically states that the previous landowners will be given 20 percent of land/plots against the determined cost of development charges.

These towns were subsequently developed by a Chinese company under Muzaffarabad City Development Project (MCDP), which was directly supervised by the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority. According to official figures, the development work cost Rs1,625 million and Rs737 million in Langarpura and Thotha, respectively. The allotment process was to be carried out by Development Authority Muzaffarabad (DAM), the controlling authority of the master plan.

ALLOTMENT AFTERSHOCKS

October, 2005: Structures seemingly constructed on strong foundations came tumbling down
October, 2005: Structures seemingly constructed on strong foundations came tumbling down

Things seemed in place till it got to the allotment stage.

The drawings obtained from DAM show that 1,652 plots had been created in Langarpura on about 43.5 percent of the total acquired land there. The remaining 56.5 percent was used either for roads or as open spaces. Similarly in Thotha, 1,135 plots were carved on 45 percent of the total land.

However, in January last year, the PPP government decided that previous owners whose land had already been purchased to construct satellite towns would be given “20 percent of the total acquired area, in the shape of plots, without any charge.”

A shoddily drafted official handout had stated at that time that AJK Prime Minister Chaudhry Abdul Majeed was of the view that “since these people have sacrificed their fertile land for their quake-affected brethren, they should not be charged any amount for the plots, pledged to them at the time of acquisition.”

This is in sharp contrast to the July 2011 allotment criteria.

On March 17 last year, the PPP government constituted a nine-member committee for allotment of plots in the said towns, under the then DAM chairman — a novice in administrative affairs appointed on the recommendations of Zardari House. The committee included Chaudhry Mohammad Rasheed, then minister for works and communications, and Barrister Syed Iftikhar Gillani, then opposition PML-N lawmaker from Muzaffarabad city.

Around the same time, the DAM asked “deserving persons” through newspaper adverts to obtain allotment forms from a state-owned bank against a non-refundable amount of 3,000 rupees and refundable pay order/demand draft in the sum of 10 percent of the plot’s cost as first instalment. The price was fixed at 100,000 rupees for one marla [approximately 25 sq metres].

“Preference will be given to the families affected by the master planning of Muzaffarabad city or by the landslides,” read the adverts, adding, “Landless survivors or those families with scant residential space will also get plots on priority basis.”

By the first week of June, as many as 2,264 applications against Langarpura plots and 89 against Thotha plots landed in DAM, along with pay orders worth 250.795 million rupees. Separately, the DAM generated 8.5 million rupees from the sale of brochures.

Not all applicants were genuinely affected or deserving persons, according to insiders.

“Most of the affected persons were unable even to deposit the first instalment of one to two lakh rupees along with their application,” laments Ziauddin Pirzada, a survivor from Madina Market, who now lives in a rented accommodation ever since the catastrophe that left his mother, younger sister and sister-in-law dead. “I can safely say that it’s mostly the well-off people already in possession of sizeable property in different parts of the state who have applied for these plots.”

THE CITIZENS’ COLLECTIVE

On July 28, 2017, Kashmiri, whose satirical pieces on social and political issues in mainstream and social media draw huge attention, convened a first-ever meeting of the intended allottees at Upper Adda Muzaffarabad, in the wake of worrying pieces of information about the process. A second such sitting was organised by him at the same place on August 25, and attendees decided to launch a campaign on this issue.

“Those meetings were held in the wake of confirmed information that some people are attempting to delay the allotment process to facilitate the influential land mafia,” Kashmiri says.

The concerns of these citizens are not unfounded.

While the genuine beneficiaries do not see light at the end of the tunnel, the 20 percent plots for the previous landowners are said to be shifting hands. According to DAM records, 331 out of the 1,652 plots in Langarpura were set aside under 20 percent quota of previous landowners. But without any formal allotment process, 233 of those 331 plots have so far been sold out by previous owners in connivance with some unscrupulous officials in DAM.

“I wonder how DAM kept on issuing the so-called istehqaq [entitlement] certificates to the previous landowners, intending to sell out the plots to anyone with deep pockets,” asks Kashmiri.

Similarly, in Thotha, 20 percent quota for previous owners has been worked out as 369 plots, notwithstanding the fact that 730 out of the total 1,135 plots had already been handed over to post-1990 migrants.

So far, officials from the DAM have issued istehqaq certificates of 296 plots to previous owners. After the issuance of the remaining istehqaq certificates, only 36 plots will be left in Thotha for other survivors.

Chaudhry Mohammad Raqeeb, a management group official who has recently been posted as chairman DAM, claims that a negligible number of Muzaffarabad residents affected by the implementation of the master plan, or falling in the categories of landless and shelter-less survivors or from the red zone, hazardous or landslide-prone areas have applied for plots.

“Perhaps because people were gradually allowed to make constructions in all such areas in keeping with the requisite precautionary measures, they did not apply for these plots,” he maintains. “It’s why allotments had to be thrown open to everyone living within the municipal limits, regardless of their being earthquake victims or not.”

However, survivors disagree with his notion.

“Muzaffarabad is not a big city like Karachi where hardly anyone knows his neighbour, it’s a small city of not more than a five-kilometre radius and thus almost everyone knows everyone,” argues Junaid.

“Why couldn’t the concerned officials prepare a list of genuinely affected and deserving persons for provision of plots on priority. Given the present practice, all well-heeled people who have submitted multiple applications with different identity cards will clinch these plots, leaving people like us in the lurch at the end of the day.”

Ghulam Muhammad, a survivor from Shahnara Mohalla, makes another point. “The conversion of just 44 percent of acquired land into plots means one marla costs at least 150,000 rupees to the government,” he says. “Since this money was meant for earthquake victims, the authorities are under an obligation not to dole it out to unaffected people, including the previous owners. Those who possess one kanal or more in their name anywhere in AJK should be declared disqualified outright for these plots, if the government really wants to help out the genuine victims.”

All said and done, however, there are more shocks in store for the quake-affected.

While 331 plots out of 1,652 plots in Langarpura were set aside under 20 percent quota of previous landowners, Raqeeb argues that if the calculations were made on 20 percent of the total land acquired “in the shape of plots,” then previous landowners will be entitled to 916 plots, rather than the 331. This is where the scandal exists: previous land owners are demanding more land than has been earmarked for them, and are justifying the demand on a mathematical lacuna. In effect, only 736 plots will be left for the rest of the survivors. Similarly, the share of previous owners in Thotha scales up to 623 plots. “If previous landowners are to be given 623 plots, the DAM will have to create another 72 plots (of bigger size) to meet that figure,” adds Raqeeb.

However, in a cautious manner, he argues that balloting for the 736 Langarpura plots should be held without further ado, before these may also become unavailable for any reason.

Many wonder how such a big number of plots for previous landowners has been determined, particularly when there is no such precedence anywhere in AJK. Unlike the land acquired in Mirpur for the Mangla Dam Raising project and Mangla Dam Housing Authority, a different yardstick has been put in place in Muzaffarabad allegedly under the influence of the “plot mafia” working hand-in-glove with some unscrupulous elements in DAM. The plot mafia allegedly includes some political figures.

The wheeling-and-dealing by the corrupt lot in civic bodies of Muzaffarabad, which sits on two major fault lines, has already exposed a sizeable portion of the town’s population to disaster, and a fresh wave of unrest is on the cards, thanks to the faulty allotment policy on satellite towns.

Even though the master planning of Muzaffarabad had recommended relocation of survivors from landslide-prone areas as well as from along the watercourses, the past decade has witnessed an upsurge in constructions on such sites in part due to the oversight and connivance of the officials concerned. Take for example the Gojra Nullah which used to have a vast span only around two decades ago. Such was its width that back in 1995, a playground was developed on it where local teams would play cricket matches. However, today, its span has shrunk to hardly 10 feet, as buildings have sprung up on both sides.

Similarly, during reconstruction of their homes, the majority has not surrendered a single foot of land and resultantly the pathways are as cramped as they used to be before the quake.

“God forbid, if we are again struck by any natural calamity, such as an earthquake or a cloud burst, the losses in such areas would be colossal,” warns environmentalist Shafiq Abbasi. However, suppose the authorities decide on relocating the most vulnerable of these people at some point of time, where will they resettle them is a big question. Kashmiri believes that the authorities are literally cheating the survivors.

“It seems the plots have already been distributed among the favourites in a secretive and illicit manner at the behest of corrupt politicians and bureaucracy.” “The way we are being deprived of plots reminds me of 1846, when one fine morning the Kashmiris came to know that they had been sold out by the British to Dogra ruler Gulab Singh along with their land.”

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 8th, 2017