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Rs460bn question

March 28, 2019

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The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

THE Supreme Court’s acceptance of Bahria Town’s Rs460 billion offer has brought relief and joy to several stakeholders. The super realtor views this verdict as a victory for the path it adopted with this mega scheme and similar ventures.

Collusion with authorities capable of disposing state land, employing retired but still influential top brass, winning the public perception battle by tapping into the self-interested aspirations of the middle class, developing a commercial stakeholder force in the form of estate agents and go-betweens, and stretching the development to such a scale as to effectively silence critics without effort were some overt strategies.

Unprecedented as this retroactive legalisation of a monumental fraud may be, there are still several crucial questions to answer.

The land in question was meant to be used to develop an incremental housing option for the poor. This format has been found to be most effective to reach the underprivileged, bypassing the procedural rigmarole of application, computer balloting and allotment. Small land parcels of 60, 80 or 120 square yards are demarcated according to a proper land sub-division plan by the concerned authority. Bare minimum infrastructure such as basic water supply (often through non-piped formats) and transportation are provided to keep the land affordable.

Where does the fate of low-cost housing now stand?

Households wishing to avail this scheme are invited to begin living in a reception area with their belongings to prove their need, and are then moved to an identified plot and allowed to construct with the means and material they can afford, with technical and financial assistance from organisations.

As a consequence, the urban poor and low-income groups access housing without falling into the trap of speculation, time delays and overpricing. The model, which has acquired finesse since it was first implemented in Hyderabad in the 1980s, is internationally recognised for its effectiveness and has been successfully piloted in Karachi, Gharo, Lahore, Peshawar, etc. While it has no subsidy at any stage, the model requires land allocation by the land-owning agency to make it happen. With a huge chunk of land now usurped by the mega realtor, one wonders how the urban poor in this region will ever have access to affordable housing.

Usually, when an attempt was made to occupy state land for any private purpose of profiteering, the judiciary would spring into action to prevent it and uphold the public’s interest. The construction in 2009 of a superstore on a playground in Karachi’s Lines Area is an example. As maintained by the Supreme Court, the building had to be demolished and the land restored to its original amenity status. Despite review petitions, the honourable court maintained its original position.

However, if misconduct in land management is done on a massive scale, and supported by thousands either as catalysts, cronies or covert agents, can the legal outcome be different? It may, in fact, create a major incentive for many dormant real estate adventurers to emulate the path adopted by Bahria Town. In the final analysis, land — the most important resource for housing — will simply become inaccessible to those who are still without shelter. In other words, targeted attempts to dispose urban and regional land for housing will become next to impossible.

At its present value, the sum offered by Bahria Town would make up over 68 per cent of the expected public development programme of the forthcoming federal budget. Many inferences can be drawn from this number, not least of which is that there are individuals and business conglomerates whose financial clout is commensurate with that of national development budgets. But, somehow, the dubious and semi-documented nature of this wealth is not netted by our taxation bodies.

The court has yet to decide about the coffers into which this sum shall be deposited. If it goes back to the same institution or tier of government that colluded to make the real-estate scheme a reality, it will be tantamount to a ‘big win’ for the abettors of this malpractice.

One option could be to create an endowment fund to support housing for the urban poor — the actual intended beneficiaries of this land before it morphed into the present fiasco. The endowment could have the mandate to support, develop, dispose of and manage low-cost housing access through professionally established procedures.

Manned by an independent board of directors with proven records of acumen and honesty in the housing sector, such an institution may be empowered to acquire land, develop and dispose of housing by following the refined process of incremental development. It may also be allowed to enhance its capital base by various available financial options. After all, it is the responsibility of the state to provide the underprivileged with access to decent shelter.

The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2019