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After the verdicts

May 15, 2018

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THIS month, the Supreme Court delivered three important verdicts. Since all three relate to land and its lawful distribution, some optimists expected a policy stance from the judgements.

One perspective is that the verdicts raise more questions than they answer. Why did the Malir Development Authority (MDA) ignore the prescribed incremental housing scheme in favour of a private real-estate enterprise? How is the venture so conveniently benefiting from uninterrupted water and power supply while the rest of Karachi suffers? Is such ruthless acquisition of agricultural lands administratively or morally justified?

And, most importantly, is public land a communal and social asset, or a marketable commodity to be sold to the highest bidder?

These questions of public policy and planning have been adequately answered in Karachi’s earlier plans drawn up by myriad experts. The Karachi Development Plan 1973-1985 covered population projections, housing demands, land-use allocations, corridors of growth, job creation, etc. It originated from well-meaning objectives such as adequate employment, infrastructure, food supplies, potable water, environmental sanitation, flood protection and basic institutional changes. The plan emphasised that the peripheries of the metropolis would only be used for agricultural, forestry and other green land uses.

Is there a desire for transparency in Karachi’s land allocation?

The Karachi Development Plan 1986-2000 focused on intensively utilising urban lands, enhancing densities and maintaining appropriate infrastructural services. It warned against the disastrous consequences of urban sprawl.

Both these and later plans envisaged the state as a benevolent facilitator of land and housing for all. But, in the recent past, land was procured, developed and sold through priorities and conditions laid down by public-sector agencies in liaison with powerful interest groups. Both attempted to maximise profits by shaping decisions in their own favour. Thus, affluent neighbourhoods are closer to the city centre compared to large katchi abadis like Orangi and Baldia. Meanwhile, the unprivileged have to fend for themselves in informal locations as per availability of land.

The innovative concept of an incremental housing option, discussed in one of the verdicts, refers to targeted supply of urban land to the urban poor. It was steered by the Hyderabad Development Authority (HDA) in Gulshan-i-Shahbaz in the 1980s. To avoid speculation, plots were carved out on designated but semi-developed land. Through social mobilisation and careful identification, needy households were invited to begin occupying the plots and pay off the cost in incremental instalments.

The HDA staff assisted the residents, while many NGOs and support groups provided health, education and social welfare services. Since land delivery procedures were simplified, poor and lower-middle income groups benefited across the board.

The innovation received the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1995, and was incorporated in the 2002 National Housing Policy. The approach was replicated in Gharo, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, etc. The Sindh Disposal of Urban Land Ordinance was promulgated in 2002 to adopt incremental housing as a key option for delivering small urban residential plots. Sadly, it was repealed in 2006, but many other administrative arrangements retain the mechanism of incremental housing.

History shows that land development schemes generally emerged as a clandestine marriage of convenience rather than a transparent, equal opportunity enterprise. Political interest is a prime factor when determining the procedure of land supply; it supersedes urban and regional planning considerations, objectives and policies of the administration, fiscal limitations and even legal liabilities.

While provincial government functionaries are allegedly involved in this, political bosses play a key role. Bypassing the laws, regulations and norms thus became a routine exercise, thereby preventing any mechanism from functioning. In brief, land parcels have been allotted due to political pressure from influentials, party bigwigs and bullies of various kinds — with political bribes often given in the form of land.

The Supreme Court has attempted to set right the course as per the scope of cases that were filed; the larger questions must be addressed by the provincial government. If it desires transparency and fair play, it must document and make public the land assets that it owns.

Access to information is the best deterrent to corruption. Categorising land according to type of ownership must also be completed. To make efficient use of available developed lands, a substantial non-utilisation tariff must be imposed to check the unnecessary holding of land. The moribund Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020 must be updated, with scientific input, to transform it into a guiding tool for urban development.

The writer is a professor and dean, Faculty of Architecture and Management Sciences, NED University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2018