LAND scams may not wreak immediate and devastating havoc on the general populace as do terrorist attacks, but they are equally destructive in the long run to a people’s sense of security and their faith in the system.

An investigative report in this paper yesterday detailed a case of illegal land acquisition, in which the Airports Security Force has joined hands with a leading business group to develop ASF Arabia Vista — a 40-acre residential and commercial project in Karachi. This case illustrates particularly well the tactics uniformly applied to bulldoze civilian authorities who show any resistance — even if they do so for self-serving reasons — to this wholesale loot and plunder. Ultimately though, these land grabs, which are found across the country — although Karachi’s pricey real estate is especially coveted — are the product of collusion between corrupt builders, their backers in the corridors of power, and a venal bureaucracy.

Dawn Investigations: The shaky foundations of ASF Arabian Vista

Proceedings at the Supreme Court are only just beginning to plumb the depths of this cesspool.

After a year-long judicial process, the apex court’s May 4, 2018 verdicts held that Bahria Town Ltd had acquired land for its projects in Karachi, Rawalpindi and Islamabad through illegal means, and that the transfers were null and void. Hearings by a three-judge bench tasked with implementing the verdict are ongoing. There have been other promising developments.

Last September, the principal accused in Lahore’s Eden Housing Society scam, who happens to be a son-in-law of former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, was arrested from Dubai. Then in December, several revenue officials and builders were indicted by an accountability court in a case pertaining to the illegal transfer of 731 acres of prime state land to DHA City, Karachi.

While it is heartening that some light is being shone on its workings, the racket is deeply entrenched and enjoys the patronage of those unused to being called to account. NAB has shown inexplicable lethargy in investigating even flagrantly illegal real-estate projects. That was one of the reasons it took so long for the Supreme Court to arrive at its damning verdicts in the Bahria case; the other being that land regulatory authorities and various civil institutions deliberately stonewalled and misled the court.

The rise of the middle class has fuelled runaway demand for residential accommodation and made construction big business. However, when regulatory bodies and development authorities become party to those business interests, those who have invested their hard-earned money into projects of dubious provenance can lose everything. Or at the very least, find themselves shortchanged. Sometimes rightful owners of land on the urban peripheries are deprived of it by force, or the threat of force, to make way for gated communities.

The superior courts have made a promising start. They must ensure that everyone involved in this racket, including those who control it, is held culpable.

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2019

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