Dawn Investigations: The shaky foundations of ASF Arabian Vista

By hook or by crook, it seems that everyone wants a slice of Karachi’s precious real estate.
Published February 4, 2019

Political bigwigs, establishment ­figures and corrupt builders — facilitated by a rotten provincial bureaucracy — make illegal ­fortunes from the city’s precious real estate.

On July 12, 2017, a strongly worded letter landed on the desk of Director General Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA), Agha Masood Abbas (since retired). It was from the then deputy director general of the Airports Security Force (ASF), Brig Imran-ul-Haq Rao.

The brigadier’s ire had been provoked because SBCA had issued a show-cause notice to the ASF a few days earlier, ordering it to stop “all illegal sale, booking and advertisement activities at once” on its Arabian Vista project in Karachi. The notice directed ASF to revert to SBCA within three days to explain why action should not be taken against it because it had undertaken the aforementioned activities without obtaining the required permissions from SBCA.

In his letter, written in response to SBCA’s show-cause notice, Brig Imran harshly asserted that the ASF operated under the Pakistan Army Act, that its housing projects were launched under the ASF Foundation (ASFF) with the approval of the federal government and did not fall under the SBCA. He denounced the show cause notice as “regretful”, “uncalled for” and “outrageous”.

“We hereby strictly call upon you to immediately restrain from making any such publications that damages and harms reputation of prestigious against [sic] ASF Housing Project,” concluded the brigadier.

However, underneath the self-righteous posturing on both sides is a sordid saga that is sadly typical of Karachi. Hundreds of construction projects in this city are of highly questionable provenance, the product of collusion between rapacious political bigwigs, establishment figures, their front men (the builders) and a venal land bureaucracy — in short, what is commonly known as the land mafia. By hook or by crook, it seems that everyone wants a slice of Karachi’s precious real estate.

Satellite image of ASF Arabian Vista from October 2017.  ─ Photo provided by author
Satellite image of ASF Arabian Vista from October 2017. ─ Photo provided by author

ASF Arabian Vista and Saima Arabian Villas, which together occupy a chunk around 270 acres off Surjani Town Link Road in North Karachi, are a textbook case that illustrates the role played by all the moving parts in this racket.

ASF’s biggest project, ASF City, is planned on no less than 3,000 acres. The market price of land here is at least Rs10m per acre. Why does a force of less than 9,000 personnel need such huge ‘welfare schemes’?

Satellite image of Saima Arabian Villas from October 2017. ─ Photo provided by author
Satellite image of Saima Arabian Villas from October 2017. ─ Photo provided by author

The projects appear to be independent of each other, but they have a common genesis. Around 12 years ago, Mehmood Trunkwala, the owner of World Group Pakistan, who was said to enjoy close ties with then chief minister Arbab Rahim, began taking possession of land in the area in bits and pieces. World Group then partnered with Saleem Zaki, the well-known — and recently deceased — owner of Saima Builders, and the Saima Arabian Villas project began coming up on this piece of real estate.

Over time, this land grab expanded further. Some of the land, according to a source well acquainted with real estate shenanigans in the area, was obtained from another encroacher named Sheroo who had built a fortune from his garbage sorting depots near the Jam Chakro landfill. Satellite imagery shows the land occupied by Saima Arabian Villas as measuring around 230 acres.

A couple of years back, World Group brought ASF on board as a partner. It was a win-win situation: the security force was looking to enter Karachi’s real estate market, and its clout made it an ideal partner in a project with extremely dubious credentials. That was how the 40-acre ASF Arabian Vista was conceived. The ASF Housing Scheme website markets it as “a grand apartment complex comprising of three, four and five rooms in Karachi”.

To reach ASF Arabian Vista, one can either drive through Saima Arabian Villas or access it through its own entrance on the Surjani Town Link Road near the Jam Chakro landfill. A recent visit to the site shows that the main entrance, clubhouse and model apartment are nearing completion. The falling out with SBCA is clearly over.

Gateway into ASF Arabian Vista from within Saima Arabian Villas. ─ Photo by Fahim Siddiqi
Gateway into ASF Arabian Vista from within Saima Arabian Villas. ─ Photo by Fahim Siddiqi

Hobnobbing with the power elite

Let’s take a closer look at the main players behind Saima Arabian Villas and ASF Arabian Vista. Mr Zaki, well known for his mutually beneficial relationship with the politicians who matter — or mattered until not too long ago — in Karachi, was rumoured to be behind scores of shady real estate projects in the city. It is alleged, for instance, that he constructed the Saima Bridge View apartment complex in North Nazimabad in partnership with MQM’s Babar Ghauri — the force behind many such projects in North Nazimabad — by encroaching on land belonging to Pakistan Railways.

Another example is Saima Luxury City in Landhi, constructed illegally on the left embankment of Malir River. (Embankments are required by law to be left undeveloped to make allowance for flooding.) Last June, a Saima project off Superhighway was found by NAB to be illegally built on government land. Some of the villas were demolished by the SBCA after the Supreme Court May 4 verdict against Bahria Town, a project that SBCA had allowed to be developed without even basic NOCs.

The Trunkwalas’ connections with Pakistan’s power elite have helped World Group grow by leaps and bounds. The company’s diverse business empire includes automobiles (World Autos), imports, real estate, etc.

Among those with whom they have cultivated close ties are the ASF. In fact, the Trunkwalas are said to be one of three or four high-profile business families (another being the Tessoris) who get VVIP protocol from the security force, to the extent that their guests have been escorted by ASF personnel right up to the aircraft steps at Karachi Airport. “In Pakistan, there’s no respect for the law,” said a retired land official who has experienced this ‘hospitality’. “You only have to be a good paymaster.”

(According to sources, the Trunkwala family patriarch and his sons enjoy a luxurious lifestyle in Madina. A mansion in the vicinity of Quba Mosque, and around a dozen expensive cars, each with its own chauffeur, make for a comfortable home away from home. Interestingly, their iqama sponsor — or kafeel — is no Saudi big shot, but a retired policeman named Afzal.)

Work is continuing apace within the 40-acre ASF project. ─ Photo by Fahim Siddiqi
Work is continuing apace within the 40-acre ASF project. ─ Photo by Fahim Siddiqi

The ASF’s four real estate ventures — ASF Arabian Vista, ASF City, ASF Airport Residencia and ASF Towers — all in Karachi, were announced during the period of Maj Gen Sohail Ahmed Khan as DG (now retired). Speaking to the media while heading ASF, Mr Khan said that ASF housing was started in order to “generate funds for the welfare of shuhada’s families and ASF retirees”. It was a specious and misleading claim: the Karachi airport attack in June 2014, whose victims included 12 ASF personnel, is perhaps the sole instance when members of the force have been martyred.

The ASF is an 8,945-strong organisation responsible for the security of all airports in Pakistan. Headed by a serving major general, it has a symbiotic relationship with the security establishment. Its top cadre also includes three brigadiers, two colonels and five majors — officials who by virtue of their service are already entitled to plots at heavily subsidised rates. Despite the small number of army officials on secondment, this military connection comes in handy to browbeat civilian authorities. Notwithstanding ASF Deputy DG Brig Imran’s bluster, ASF does not operate under the Army Act, but under the ASF Act 1975, as its own website states. According to the website, the Foundation was “established on 24-04-2014 to provide and generate funds for welfare measures and benefits of serving and ex-servicemen of ASF and their families through various welfare schemes”.

When asked why all ASF housing projects happen to be in Karachi, Director ASF Foundation Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Afzal replied with a laugh: “One has to start somewhere, and I’m here to start with big projects and we’ll do more and more in times to come.”

Work is continuing apace within the 40-acre ASF project. ─ Photo by Fahim Siddiqi
Work is continuing apace within the 40-acre ASF project. ─ Photo by Fahim Siddiqi

The land in Surjani Town is presently worth between Rs25 million to Rs35m per acre. That means the value of the land alone — ie, without taking into account the value added by built-up units, apartment buildings, etc — on which ASF Arabian Vista is coming up (40 acres) is worth a whopping Rs1,000m to Rs1,400m.

Interestingly, on the northern side of the Surjani Town Link Road, opposite the main entrance to the complex, one can see a blue steel gate with an “ASF Arabian Vista” sign above it. A long boundary wall extends on either side, parts of which display ASF Arabian Vista signboards. Are the planners of ASF Arabian Vista eyeing yet more state land on which to extend this complex?

Another project, ASF City, part of whose boundary is contiguous with DHA City off Superhighway, is planned on no less than 3,000 acres. The market price of land here is at least 10m per acre. It is worth asking: why does a force of less than 9,000 personnel need such huge ‘welfare schemes’?

No title to land

The ASFF office, a new three-storey building emblazoned with huge images of ASF’s upcoming real estate projects, overlooks the Karachi airport tarmac — very befitting given ASF’s actual, mandated role. As it turned out, Col Afzal had invited Managing Director World Group Muneer Trunkwala to join him during his interview with Dawn. According to Col Afzal: “We manage the Arabian Vista project, while they have provided the land.”

For his part, Mr Trunkwala said that ASF’s contribution to the project is its “brand name”, as well as provision of lifetime management and security. Acknowledging that “title is the most important component in any housing project,” he added: “Mash’Allah, where Saima Arabian Villas and ASF Arabian Vista are concerned, it is totally perfect and up to date.”

However, the digitised land record on the Sindh government’s Board of Revenue (BoR) website (sindhzameen.gos.pk) tells a very different story: it shows the area on which ASF Arabian Vista is coming up and where Saima Arabian Villas stands as being sarkari (government) land. The builders have not met the basic condition of a legitimate real estate enterprise, ie title to land.

Interestingly, the relevant BoR record, has suddenly gone missing from its website. It remained inaccessible until this story went into print.

Sources in BoR confirmed to Dawn that there exists no evidence in its record that this land has ever been allotted. (However, there were a number of dairy farms operating on 30-year leases. These leases were allegedly cancelled without notice to facilitate several unscrupulous developers eyeing the area; around 15 leaseholders have filed petitions in court.)

On Nov 28, 2012, recognising “the rampant corruption and organised crime of land grabbing particularly regarding prime state land and mismanagement/forgeries in the revenue record,” the five-member Supreme Court bench hearing the ‘Karachi unrest’ case (No.16 of 2011) banned the Sindh government from issuing any lease, or effecting any allotment, transfer or mutation etc of government land “till the entire revenue record [record of ownership] of Sindh is reconstructed”. This includes the land record of 878 dehs that were des­troyed in the riots triggered by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007.

(Implicitly acknowledged by the SC in the above case is the fact that the land mafia is the ‘mother ship’ of criminal rackets in Pakistan’s chaotic megalopolis, where they find shelter and common cause. In March 2018, a JIT set up on the apex court’s orders to investigate Orangi Pilot Project director Perween Rahman’s murder in Karachi on March 13, 2013, concluded that land mafia elements were the “clearest beneficiaries” of her death because as a result, OPP’s work on helping villagers in district Malir obtain land rights came to a complete standstill.

ASF is responsible for the security of all airports in the country. Although it includes less than a dozen army officials on secondment, this military connection comes in handy to browbeat civilian authorities.

The JIT report touched upon the workings of the racket, stating that despite their political differences, all the groups involved in land-grabbing, which at the time included MQM, ANP and TTP “worked hand in glove, often supporting each other’s activities… Big developers in the city would ally themselves with these groups, using [their] militant wings…as their muscle in order to forcibly seize land. Anyone who came in their way was either threatened, or if they refused to back off, killed…often murders that were declared as being politically motivated or acts of terrorism, were in actual fact land disputes that were made to look like political killings”.)

In 2013, BoR submitted a consolidated report in the SC asserting that the record of the 93 dehs that comprise Karachi had been reconstructed. According to Iqbal Rehmani, deputy director GIS, BoR, “Records obtained from district commissioners and mukhtiarkars [local land revenue officers] were scanned here and uploaded on the website”.

Senior Member BoR Mohammed Hussain Syed conceded there is “considerable tampering in the land record in Sindh at the mukhtiarkar level, particularly where prices of real estate had risen or were likely to do so, such as in Jamshoro, Thatta and Karachi”. He added it was precisely to prevent such tampering that the BoR had set up its Land Administration and Revenue Management Information System. So far, under the LARMIS project, 85 per cent of the land record in the 6,093 dehs of Sindh has been digitised.

There remain certain dehs where the record is still to be verified in its totality by local land officials, but Deh Jam Chakro, according to a BoR official, does not figure among them.

As acknowledged by the SC, it is the very custodians of government land in Sindh, protected by their political bosses, who hand over prime pieces of real estate to unscrupulous builders and collude with them to violate every law in the book.

There is BoR, Sindh, the provincial government department that maintains land records and allots land to individuals, and to societies, institutions and development agencies etc, to develop schemes for specific purposes; and the SBCA, which is supposed to approve building plans in line with town planning regulations.

The various development agencies include the Karachi Development Authority, Defence Housing Authority Karachi, Malir Development Authority, Lyari Development Authority (LDA), etc that are responsible for approving layout plans.

The land occupied by ASF Arabian Vista and Saima Arabian Villas falls under LDA’s jurisdiction. However, enquiries about these projects have been met either with stone­walling, prevarication or outright hostility.

First, the alleged underhand dealings in the case of Saima Arabian Villas that extended seamlessly into the more recently initiated ASF project. In November and December 2016 and in July 2017, citing the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act 2016, R.A., a private citizen, wrote to the land officials concerned asking for clarifications pertaining to the Saima project. (ASF Arabian Vista was announced in April 2017.)

Copies of the letters, and proof of dispatch, are in Dawn’s possession. They are addressed or cc’d to the DG SBCA, DG LDA, Senior Member BoR, and others.

The letters ask for copies of documents showing the developers/builders’ proof of ownership, and for the notices that the land authorities are legally required to place in newspapers to seek public objections before issuing any NOCs. He received no response from any quarter.

R.A. also approached BoR to seek information about title to the land. On Sept 26, 2017, he received a letter from the deputy director (GIS) of BoR’s Reforms Wing and Special Cell — which was responsible for digitising Sindh’s land records — informing him that “the requested ownership information…is not available in the computerised database… However, the concerned mukhtiarkar will be the relevant authority to obtain the authenticated details of the same.”

This was the official response. However, R.A. had already been privately informed by a senior source in BoR Sindh that the land — survey numbers 82,83, 84 and 85 of Deh Jam Chakro, Tapo Manghopir, Gadap Town — was government and not private land. (According to R.A., when his contact in BoR pulled up the satellite image of the area, he was completely taken aback to find construction there — on what he believed was undeveloped government land.)

Nevertheless, R.A. wrote to the deputy commissioner, district West as suggested, with a copy to the mukhtiarkar of Manghopir. There was no response.

He was similarly stonewalled when he wrote to LDA requesting copies of 10 NOCs of layout plans issued by the authority for the project. In his letter, he pointed out, “Please take notice that these NOCs are reportedly issued on some fake / manipulated documents.” Again, no response.

When Dawn spoke with DG LDA Aziz Memon, a Grade-18 officer appointed to a Grade-20 post, he first tried to obfuscate and deflect, but when asked point blank why he did not respond to the letters by a member of the public legally entitled to ask questions of a government department, he furiously ordered the correspondent to leave his office.

(Incidentally, Mr Memon wears several hats, including chief engineer LDA, director finance LDA, director land LDA, and more. The authority has been functioning without a full-fledged DG since three years in violation of the SC’s landmark judgement in Criminal Original Petition No89/2011, in which a three-judge bench ruled against out-of-turn promotions and the posting of officers on deputation.)

Arabian Vista shenanigans

In early May 2018, the Karachi editions of several newspapers carried a notice from LDA inviting public objections pertaining to nearly 40 acres of land in Manghopir in district West. The notice was fishy in several respects.

For one, although the land was that on which ASF’s Arabian Vista project was coming up, the notice made no mention of the project, even though World Group and ASF had already long begun marketing it through Star Marketing. In fact, it named three private individuals, Syed Johar Ali Qandhari, Mohammed Ayub, Arshad Iqbal and others as owners, although according to the government’s own record, this is state land. Secondly, how did World Group announce the ASF project in April 2017 and ASF begin marketing it before seeking legally mandated public objections to the ownership of the land on which it was planned?

Former ASF DG Maj Gen Sohail Ahmed has said that ASF Housing is meant to “generate funds for the welfare of shuhada’s families and ASF retirees”. However, the Karachi airport attack in 2014, whose victims included 12 ASF personnel, is perhaps the sole instance when members of the force have been martyred.

Across the road from the main entrance to ASF Arabian Vista are signs that the planners envision the project’s expansion further north of the Surjani Town Link Road. ─ Photo by author
Across the road from the main entrance to ASF Arabian Vista are signs that the planners envision the project’s expansion further north of the Surjani Town Link Road. ─ Photo by author

When asked these questions, Mr Trunkwala and Col Afzal claimed, implausibly enough, that they were at the time under the impression that normal rules of procedure did not apply to ASFF. “We were doing something new,” said Col Afzal. “We didn’t have the understanding. We thought that as ASFF was created through a government of Pakistan notification, we don’t need to involve the Sindh government.”

DHA Karachi, also helmed by senior military officers, is the country’s most powerful land authority and has been in the real estate business for decades. The ASFF, with its own top tier drawn from the higher echelons of the military, would not have had to go far to seek advice about its “new” revenue generation stream. Unfortunately, it seems that ASF’s top bosses, using the security establishment as a cover, believe they enjoy carte blanche to run their business projects exactly as they please. (Consider this: Col Afzal told Dawn that ASFF is dealing with the land authorities, obtaining NOCs, etc. Why is it doing so when by its own admission it is “new” to the business of real estate?)

And the Trunkwalas have been dealing with LDA and SBCA for at least a decade in the context of the Saima project in the immediate vicinity. The partners in the ASF Arabian Vista project are no real estate neophytes.

Dawn also interviewed Additional Director LDA Syed Raheel Ali regarding Saima Arabian Villas and ASF Arabian Vista. In spite of asserting that LDA only issued approvals after getting the required go-ahead from BoR Sindh, Mr Raheel let slip some telling remarks. “I make sure that not an inch of private land is disturbed.” (LDA is custodian not only of private land but also public land in its jurisdiction.)

He also criticised the Supreme Court order banning the Sindh government from effecting any allotment, mutation, lease etc on state land, saying, “In such a situation, people find ways to do things”. When asked why LDA was allowing World Group and ASF to brazenly publicise and take bookings for a project on land to which neither has title, the additional director LDA’s lame response was that “everyone is doing it”.

(Incidentally, following a separate Supreme Court verdict on Oct 3, 2018, Mr Raheel is among six LDA employees who were served with termination letters last December; like the others, he had allegedly been appointed chief engineer even though he did not possess an engineering degree certified by the Pakistan Engineering Council.)

Given all this wheeling and dealing, it may seem puzzling that SBCA through its show-cause notice in 2017 had demanded that ASF abide by the letter of the law. But according to a former bureaucrat with decades of experience in land matters, there was more to it than met the eye. “ASF had clearly bulldozed its way over SBCA,” he said. “Palms were not being greased, so SBCA threw the book at ASF.” Otherwise, why else would SBCA allow the equally dubious Saima Arabian Villas project to proceed thus far without raising the same objections?

Thus ASFF, a subsidiary of a national security force that prides itself on its reputation, is taking bookings for apartments that will mint billions of rupees for its coffers, but which are being constructed on land to which no private organisation or individual has legal title.

The lack of transparency manifests itself on several levels. According to an interview given to a TV channel by then ASF DG Maj Gen Sohail (under whom the four ASF real estate projects were announced), 80,000 people registered with ASFF to become eligible for balloting in the ASF housing schemes. At Rs10,000 per person, that came to a total of Rs800 million in proceeds for the foundation.

However, when Mohammed Irfan, a mid-level employee in the corporate sector, was unsuccessful in the balloting for ASF Towers in Malir Cantonment, it took him almost a year of repeated visits to the ASFF office to finally get his Rs10,000 refund in the form of a cheque.

Curiously however, this cheque, drawn on a Kasur district branch of Al Baraka Bank, did not bear the name of ASFF but that of two individuals, one of whom, Raheel Abbas, had put his signature to it. And, it bounced.

The cheque that bounced. ─ Photo by author
The cheque that bounced. ─ Photo by author

Header photo by Fahim Siddiqi.

Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2019