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Reprieve for Bahria Town

Updated March 24, 2019

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THE denouement of the Bahria Town case pertaining to its project in Karachi, instead of correcting a rotten-to-the core system that facilitates ruthless business interests in land, may unintentionally embolden it further.

After months of wrangling, the apex court finally accepted the real estate behemoth’s offer of Rs460bn as payment for 16,896 acres it illegally acquired for its housing project in Malir district.

In exchange, the rights to the land are to be transferred to Bahria Town; meanwhile, NAB has been restrained from filing references against the firm’s directors and officials. However, in case of any default in the payment schedule of the settlement, the accountability body will be free to file corruption references against the developer after getting permission from the court.

Bahria Town was a test case. The outcome of the years-long proceedings could have put the brakes on the unbridled mafia of private mega developers who include or have connections within the highest echelons of power, and that harness the state’s coercive powers to deprive rightful owners of their land.

It could have determined whether those who broke the law and gamed the system would receive their comeuppance.

The reason the case dragged on as long as it did was because individuals and organisations, including NAB, which should have furnished the court with the information it sought about Bahria Town’s shenanigans in Malir, delayed, misled and prevaricated.

Despite all these efforts at obstructing justice, the Supreme Court’s damning May 4 verdict found indisputable evidence of criminal conspiracy between Bahria and Sindh government functionaries and shed much-needed light on what has been a grossly underreported plunder of the city’s precious real estate.

Unfortunately, the most recent order does not prescribe commensurate sanctions against the perpetrators. Instead, the apex court has retrospectively legalised what the earlier three-judge bench had determined was a blatant fraud, even more so given that the land handed over to Bahria on a platter by Sindh’s venal bureaucracy was to be developed for low-cost housing.

The Rs460bn settlement — equivalent to no less than $3.2bn — offered by Bahria, albeit at the nudging of the apex court, only indicates the developer’s deep pockets and the colossal fortune it has already raked in.

According to a detailed estimate in the May 4 verdict, which took into account a mere 7,068 acres in its Karachi project, Bahria stands to make a net gain of around Rs225bn from marketable land alone, ie not counting potential profits from built-up units, such as houses, apartments, etc.

Consider that the settlement agreed upon is for 16,896 acres — which is also grossly off the mark. Bahria Town Karachi today encroaches upon at least 30,000 acres. What is to stop this juggernaut from continuing to flout the law? Can we hope that those with a duty to hold the powerful to account will monitor its actions?

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2019