A landmark verdict?

May 06, 2018

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A MONUMENTAL plunder of land has, at the very least, been highlighted in the highest court of justice. Led by a majority decision, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court on Friday delivered separate verdicts declaring that Bahria Town, the gigantic real estate developer, had acquired land for several of its projects through illegal means and that the transfers were null and void. As per its verdict in the Bahria Town Karachi case, Bahria has been banned from selling “any plot, built-up unit, apartment etc”; this mammoth scheme has so far reportedly expanded to more than 30,000 acres. In another verdict, the court struck down a deal between Bahria and the forestry department resulting in nearly 2,000 kanals of forest land being encroached upon near Islamabad. Similarly, the apex court ruled that land acquired for the New Murree Development Scheme was in violation of the law.

The judgement takes to task the government departments that have colluded with Bahria to facilitate the wholesale theft of government land for eye-watering profits. In the case of Bahria Town Karachi, the Malir Development Authority’s role is denounced as “a brazen betrayal of the trust of the state and the people” and that of the Sindh government as a “collaborator”. The venality of those party to the scam can be gauged — if one were to pick but a single example — by the fact that the profit-driven Bahria was given, at shockingly low rates, government land earmarked for a low-cost housing scheme. At the same time, while the judgement on BTK has touched upon many of the salient points in the case, certain aspects of it are cause for concern. The development of the multibillion-rupee enterprise has laid waste to the lives of those settled for generations in small villages scattered across the area. In complicity with influential figures in the establishment, the political elite and government officials have used the state’s coercive powers to forcibly remove these already marginalised indigenous communities from their land. However, although it orders NAB to take action against those involved and alludes to the injustice done to the locals, the verdict — recognising the third-party interest created in BTK — provides for a resolution that protects the investors. That will result in the legalisation of a product spawned by brazen violations of the law. What relief, one may ask, does this fait accompli give the local residents who have the first right on the land? Also of concern is NAB’s poor track record in a matter which it has again been entrusted to investigate.

Last but not least, the role of the media in this deplorable saga. Instead of being a watchdog for the public interest, which is its duty, most media houses in this country chose to be silent onlookers so as not to antagonise a business tycoon. They too, in effect, betrayed public trust.

Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2018