Dawn Investigations: In Malir’s Taiser town, sweet dreams are made of dust

The low-cost housing scheme notified in 1996 by the authority fails to deliver on its promise.
Published May 6, 2019

KARACHI: All through March, a visit to any Silk Bank branch across Karachi showed long lines of people queuing up in pursuit of the same dream.

Thousands of form-seekers waited patiently to reach the desk, then walked away with a three-page document that they saw as a key to their life goal, “Apna ghar ban jaye bas! (just to build my house!)”, in the words of one woman standing in the line.

Their eyes are all on a large patch of dusty ground 20 minutes from Sohrab Goth. Here lies the heavily advertised ‘best residential scheme’ in Karachi — Malir Development Authority’s (MDA) Taiser Town Scheme 45.

This is a fresh launch of an old project which has promised since 2005 to provide shelter to a low- and middle-income population of 2.5 million.

Instead, it is a saga of broken dreams, poor development, wild bushes, clouds of dust and howling dogs.

And this is 23 years after the scheme was initially launched by MDA in 1996, and 14 years after it was re-launched once again by none other than General Pervez Musharraf in 2005.

When asked if they know where the scheme is located or what happened to past launches of the same project, many of the prospective allottees stare vacantly and insist: “Sarkari project hay, fraud nahi ho ga (It is a government project, surely there is no fraud here).”

But a visit to the site suggests otherwise. The land lacks basic civic amenities including electricity, gas and running water. MDA claims it has set up the necessary infrastructure but a visit to the site shows a large uninhabited space, crumbling drains and beat-up roads that lead nowhere. A local estate agent and thaikaydar have set up a model 80-yard house to attract potential buyers but around it there is no sign of development. The only place in the area that has electricity (illegal connections according to the power utility) is a settlement called Afghan Camp (also known as Muhajir Camp) where internally displaced persons (IDPs) were allowed to camp by the federal government.

So who are the people eagerly filling out forms and paying the non-refundable fee of Rs1,000-2,000 for Taiser Town Scheme 45 and its 30,000 plots measuring 80, 120, 240 and 400 yards? They are drivers, cooks, maids, salon workers, young professionals, teachers and of course middle-income investors in search of returns greater than single digits on their hard-earned savings — a motley crew of lower- and middle-class people tired of monthly rentals and stingy returns on their savings.

According to a State Bank report, the yearly estimated housing demand is 400,000 units while the actual supply is only 150,000, leaving a shortfall of 250,000. Last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that 5 million low-cost houses would be built across the country over a period of five years.

With more than half a million of its residents living in slums and squatter settlements, the lower- and lower-middle class families of Karachi find themselves struggling on a daily basis in dingy accommodation with high rents and inadequate infrastructure.

The monthly rent for a small 8x10 space with a kitchen and small bathroom is around Rs5,000 while a tiny 300 sq ft two-room apartment costs between Rs8,000 and Rs13,000 per month in lower-income localities all over the city.

Talking to Dawn, M. Ali, a driver working for a local company, said that he has submitted forms for Scheme 45 in both the 80- and 120-sq yard categories. He lives in a two-bedroom house in Qayyumabad. “I have a small family that includes my wife and children. I barely make Rs18,000 a month of which Rs8,000 goes straight into rent.”

The rental includes charges for electricity, gas and water. Ali is permitted by the landlord to keep one TV, an iron and a small fridge. Many landlords only allow fans, tubelights and single burners for cooking; several have thrown out tenants who were found to be using televisions, washing machines, etc. “Plots all over the city are expensive and with my salary I don’t think I can buy a house. This installment plan seems reasonable,” he says.

The scheme has been heavily advertised in traditional media and many private firms have made widespread use of social media marketing to get the message across. Talking to Dawn, several applicants from the low-income segment said they came to know about the scheme after estate agents in their areas started visiting them and told them about it. Many applicants have even been approached by estate agents — loitering around Silk Bank branches — offering them up to Rs80,000 if they are among the lucky ones to be balloted. This tactic of driving up prices artificially seems to have been borrowed from Bahria Town’s playbook; after all, MDA was a major player in the mega scam that spawned Bahria’s Karachi project. (Silk Bank’s role is confined to collecting the fee for the plots; this story does not imply any illegality on its part.)

Meanwhile, the prices for old allotments seem to have surged. There is a sudden spike in SMS ads for Taiser Town, though till last year people were mostly receiving targetted ads for Bahria Town plots. A quick glance through various online property sites shows the cost of land has gone up, in some cases from Rs400,000 to Rs10,00,000 for an 80-sq yard plot from earlier allotments. A few calls to some estate agents operating in the vicinity show that rates have indeed gone up for old plots but there are not many buyers.

A real estate agent and contractor, Ali Murad says he has been in this area since last year but “things have started picking up pace and interest has revived”. He showed Dawn the model house in the Scheme 45 (which has been set up by the realty firm he works for) the cost of which is approximately Rs2.5 million (cost of land + construction). “Since the launch of the new scheme, plot prices in Phase-I and II have also gone up. Currently an 80-sq yard plot alone has a premium/‘own’ of Rs500,000-1,000,000 depending on the location. There are some 11 houses currently under construction and I hope more people will follow suit.”

False hopes

A sign showing the non-existent office of the MDA Director— Photo by author.
A sign showing the non-existent office of the MDA Director— Photo by author.

The advertisement campaign, on Facebook and traditional media, pushes all the right buttons for this demographic. “Low-cost mega project of MDA Government of Sindh”, one ad announces. “The best residential scheme in Karachi around which wholesale markets are being set up”, says another. “Adjacent to Northern Bypass, Gulshan-e-Maymar and Dreamworld Resort” screams a third, and “Golden chance for the citizens of Sindh to own a house” claims a fourth.

To top it off, MDA has now thrown the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into its sales pitch as well. The new map of the scheme shows the M10 road, on which it is located, is linked to the CPEC route while officials insist that high-rises and business area development will bring in lucrative rewards. If real estate agents are to be believed, over 800,000 forms have been handed out while sources at Silk Bank cite the number as 450,000. MDA authorities claim that over 176,000 filled forms have been deposited so far while the bank is tabulating data from branches all over Pakistan and the number is expected to go up.

Many families have submitted multiple forms, with fees ranging from Rs1,000 (non-refundable) along with refundable booking fee of Rs9,000 for 80- and Rs15,000 for 120-sq yards and Rs2,000 (non-refundable) along with refundable booking fee of Rs30,000 for 240- and Rs50,000 for 400-sq yard plots. “The more forms we submit, the greater the chance,” says Ahmed, a painter. He says he has submitted three forms — one each under his CNIC, his wife and his son. “I can take a hit of Rs30,000 but I’m hopeful I’ll get a plot.” So far no date for balloting has been fixed.

So what exactly is the fate of this scheme which was first launched in 1996?

“Whenever MDA needs money, it publishes ads in the papers saying ‘this number of plots are being balloted, kindly deposit money’. It’s a good way of generating funds,” says Tasneem Siddiqi, who heads Saiban — the NGO behind the low-cost housing project Khuda ki Basti in Karachi as well as in Hyderabad and Lahore.

In fact, Khuda ki Basti, also in Scheme 45,is an early example of the incremental housing model. Need assessment of applicants is carried out and the delivery of land is immediate. Successful applicants must set up residence on the plot and begin immediate construction of a shelter. The cost of land is paid in installments and the land title is delivered after a period of few years while infrastructure is developed using the collection pool. This helps keep speculators and investors away.

A former DG of Hyderabad Development Authority, Mr Siddiqi blames political powers for the derelict scheme. “In 1999, the Musharraf government and MQM became partners and made millions through this scheme. MDA DG Ameerzada Kohati [against whom several corruption references were later filed, and who later moved to Dubai] and Sindh governor Ishratul Ebad were hand in glove. Someone needs to find out how much money was collected during the balloting. What happened to those funds?”

About another major MDA project, New Malir Housing near National Highway, he says: “The same situation exists over there. No development. For people to move there, development is needed.”

Chairman of Department of Architecture & Planning at NED University Dr Noman Ahmed expresses similar concerns: “There is a strong chance the latest scheme will fall into the hands of speculators once again and the target group will be missed out.” The biggest flaw, he points out, is that MDA has once again not carried out a needs assessment. “The strategy isn’t much different from commercial developers — open applications have been invited and computer ballots will determine who gets the plot,” he says.

“This is the third time MDA is going on a massive scale for balloting in Scheme 45. There are two types of people: the really needy ones who want to make a house of their own and the other are investors with disposable income. These small plots are seemingly ideal investments but what people don’t realise is that their investment is doomed,” says Mr Siddiqi.

In 1979, KDA launched Shah Abdul Latif Town on National Highway with 43,000 plots of 60-, 80- and 120-sq yards. Balloting was done, allotment letters were issued but the recipient pool was not the needy group that required immediate housing.

The plots were held up for speculative purposes and the scheme remained unoccupied for so long that eventually encroachments started coming up. A similar situation prevails in MDA Scheme 45. Successful buyers from the earlier allotments had no immediate interest in developing and occupying this land.

An unfinished building. — Photo by author
An unfinished building. — Photo by author

Meanwhile, according to a retired land official, “Those allotted plots in Sectors 53 and 54 of Scheme-45 in balloting during Musharraf’s time were not given allotment letters despite paying their installments; instead people displaced by the construction of the Lyari Expressway were resettled on that land by then Nazim Mustafa Kamal.”

(The fate of another low-cost housing scheme, Hawkesbay Scheme 46, launched by the Lyari Development Authority in the 1990s is even more intriguing. According to sources, while files exist on paper, there is nothing on ground. It is, in effect, a ghost housing scheme.)

Gloomy beginnings

Barren stretches of land. — Photo by author
Barren stretches of land. — Photo by author

The Board of Revenue, Sindh, is the original owner of all the land in the province and responsible for collecting revenue and managing land records. The body also allots land to citizens and societies including the Karachi Development Authority (KDA), MDA and Defence Housing Authority (DHA) for development.

Taiser Town Scheme 45 was first notified by KDA in 1986 with a controlled area of 20,570 acres in the north-east of Karachi comprising dehs including Mokhi, Nangan, Bijar-ji-Bhutti and Taiser — all named after folklore characters. Mai Taiser (pronounced ‘tie sir’), for instance is said to have been the sister of Mokhi, a folk heroine featured in Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s poetry.

Fast forward to 1993, MDA was established under the Malir Development Authority Act 1993. The authority had the mandate “to make provision for the development of certain areas of the Karachi Division and improve the socio-economic conditions of the people of such area”.

In 1996, KDA transferred Taiser Town Scheme 45 to MDA without any development.MDA launched the scheme in September 2005 on 9,512 acres for a low-cost housing scheme and initiated infrastructure development thereafter. The plans included about 68,176 residential plots, beside commercial and amenity plots, to serve 1.2 million people.

On Jan 15, 2006, then president Pervez Musharraf performed the computer balloting for Scheme 45 at the Governor House, Karachi. Those present included then Sindh governor Dr Ishratul Ebad, chief minister Dr Arbab Rahim, city nazim Mustafa Kamal, naib nazim Nasreen Jalil, and other members of the Sindh cabinet. The employees of Governor House also had a quota set aside for them.

A news report published on May 6, 2006 said: “Allied Bank has received a total 309,300 applications for the low-cost housing scheme, Taiser Town. Total amount deposited with banks was Rs4.794 billion, including Rs154m as cost of forms.”

By August 2007, complaints started to trickle in about the delay in allotments. “Around 400,000 people had applied for plots in different categories of Taiser Town and only 70,000 people succeeded. We have asked the Sindh government to allocate 6,000 acres initially in Deh Paiee and Deh Ghaggar to accommodate the leftover applicants,” another report published on August 7, 2007 quoted the then MDA DG Kohati as saying.

Interestingly, since 1985, 1,879.53 acres of land in Scheme 45 have been allocated to 45 private housing societies, with many turned into thriving private sector projects including Garden City and Karim Housing Project. There are also sectors reserved for the Lyari Expressway Resettlement Project. All these rely on infrastructure set up by MDA.

‘Plots on paper’

“I was allotted a 400-sq yard plot back in 2006 and paid Rs1.2m for it. The last payment was made sometime in 2009,” says Arif Pervez, one of the allottees from that scheme. He managed to visit the site a few years ago. “There is an existing main gate but I don’t even know the exact location of the plot. It seems to exist on paper only.”

Mrs N, an elderly lady who also did not want her full name used, says her husband was allotted a plot in 2006. “We had moved back from Dubai after my husband retired. We managed to get a decent apartment in Clifton but wanted a house eventually so that we could live with our sons,” she says. “I regret the day we saw Gulshan-e-Maymar in the vicinity and were impressed and went for Scheme 45. My husband passed away a few years ago and since then my sons have been running around to get the 400-sq yard plot transferred in our name. We paid the full amount so why should we pay bribes now? Kyon dhoka dete hein? (Why do they deceive us?)”

Sohail Khan has the possession of a 120-sq yard plot in Scheme 45 but says he will most probably die before seeing his house there. When asked why he doesn’t sell the plot, he says, “If I sell it, I will never be able to buy a plot this big in any other part of the city. For the past 12 years I have been waiting and saving money to build a house but every time I visit the place, it’s the same,” says the retired school teacher.

“Whenever MDA needs money, it publishes ads in the papers saying ‘this number of plots are being balloted, kindly deposit money’. It’s a good way of generating funds,” says Tasneem Siddiqi, a former DG of Hyderabad Development Authority

Even the employees of the Governor House who were allotted plots under quota have been unable to build homes there due to nonexistent amenities.

In fact, since the early 2000s those affected at various stages after the scheme was launched have been voicing the betrayal of their hopes in letters published in various newspapers since then.

A letter in Dawn dated May 3, 2004 reads: “I draw the attention of the relevant authorities to the legitimate outstanding claim for allotment of the land applied for under Scheme No. 45, as far back as March 1987 when the land was under KDA. The subject matter was personally referred to former Sindh chief minister Qaim Ali Shah on Jan 13, 1990, and an assurance was given to attend to the problem. It is regretted, however, that the land has not been allotted, nor have the crores of rupees already paid for been refunded...”

Another letter from a disillusioned investor dated April 23, 2010 reads: “…I was allotted a plot measuring 120 square yards. With all dues cleared, I am still waiting for the allotment order to be issued to me...”

“We were allotted a 240-square yards plot of land in Taiser Town by the MDA through ballot on Feb 27, 2007. It is now over 12 years we have been trying to get possession of our land with no result,” reads yet another letter published on March 13, 2019.

The official Facebook page of Taiser Town Scheme 45 is littered with the voices of those who have not received possession letters despite timely payments. Many point out how the place is nothing but wasteland.

The MDA dismisses these complaints as “propaganda by rivals” and has issued statements that anyone indulging in negative publicity will be dealt with by the FIA. One might ask: what “rivals” is MDA alluding to? After all, it owns the real estate in question — unless of course the land authority is conducting itself like a private developer trying to attract buyers.

‘All is well’

In his office situated behind the National Stadium, MDA Secretary Muhammad Arshad Khan is flanked by well over half a dozen acolytes who practically fill in the gaps every time he struggles to recall a number. Tea flows freely as one assistant after the other walks in with files and maps related to Scheme 45.

Talking to Dawn, Khan vehemently tried to dispel the notion that Scheme 45 will fail once again. “Where can you get Rs1,000 per square yard in Karachi? In our surroundings, private developers are selling land at the rate of Rs35,000-40,000 per square yard. It is nothing but propaganda by dubious characters and private builders in the area whose interests are hurt.”

He went on to clarify that this is not a new scheme. “The plots are those that were left over in Phase-I and II balloting between the years 2006-08.”

When asked why no development has yet taken place in the area, he blames the allottees and their failure to pay their dues in full. “Only 64pc payment has been received from earlier schemes. We have set up the required infrastructure and Phase-I possessions are currently being given out,” he says, stressing that people must start building their homes.

It’s worth noting that ‘shortage of funds’ did not prevent the authority from constructing all the major roads, boulevards, culverts and bridges in Bahria Town Karachi that impressed thousands into buying plots in the housing scheme. Not only that, but the thousands of acres on which BTK is located — and which were gifted to the land developer by the MDA — were supposed to be used for an incremental i.e. low-cost housing scheme.

The Supreme Court judgement last year that declared Bahria’s acquisition of land in Malir district to be illegal and void ab initio described MDA as having “…acted as a property dealer and even as a go-between in the deal [between the Sindh government and Bahria Town]...A business venture of this type cannot be said to have any meaning for the poor people…”

A document shared by the MDA shows only 807 possessions have been handed over by the authority in Phase-I. The total number of possessions left behind in Phase-I and II combined is 59,481. So what is preventing allottees that have paid some installments from paying the full amount and seeking possession?

A source in MDA says that seasoned investors and common folk know the authority will not cancel their plots and even if it did, they can get a stay from court.

When pointed out that the place lacks civic amenities and infrastructure, he says: “Most buyers don’t go for possession and prefer to wait and watch. Investors are holding on to these plots. This time we have carefully planned the whole scheme so as to curb this practice. Only one plot per CNIC will be allotted and we will only ask for development charges once all payments have been cleared.”

He adds: “We can’t do it all alone. All institutions — KE, KWSB, SSGC — need to be onboard to develop Taiser Town Scheme 45 else nothing will change” he insisted. When asked how these institutions are onboard with the MDA in surrounding private schemes, the secretary simply shrugged and said “I don’t know” with an air of exasperation. Interestingly, by March 2016 KWSB had already provided four three-inch water pipelines from Dumlotee to BTK, well before anyone had even moved in there.

Meanwhile, in an interview published in the local press in March this year, Additional DG of MDA Sohail Khan claimed that it was unfair to say the authority did not do any work. “We didn’t do road carpeting but did smooth out/pave the way for roads. If we had done road carpeting in 2004, it wouldn’t have lasted for two rains and people would have accused us of corruption.” In the same interview, he said that Rs520 million was generated after selling commercial plots in Shah Latif Town in New Malir Housing Scheme and used for paying four months’ salaries of MDA staff. Incidentally, the role of the Grade-20 official, who was earlier MDA DG, was extensively questioned during the Bahria Town case.

The history of the consultancy services acquired by MDA for Scheme 45 is also very telling. Back in 2003, MDA hired M/s ECIL (Pvt) Ltd for survey, investigations, planning design and construction supervisor services of the scheme. The MDA cites the company as a reputable one with experience of works in 19 different countries. On the ECIL website, there can be found a summary of ‘Master Planning of 20,570 acres for Taiser Scheme 45’, showing the current project status as still “in progress”.

In 2009, the Federal Ministry of Communications in its inquiry report on the September 2007 Shershah Bridge collapse, held ECIL and the National Highway Authority (NHA) responsible for the tragedy. The 70-metre Baldia loop of the Shershah Bridge collapsed on Sept 1, 2007, a mere 20 days after its inauguration by then President Pervez Musharraf. The accident claimed nearly half a dozen lives, injured dozens and cost the exchequer billions of rupees.

The report recommended that M/S ECIL should immediately be removed from the list of government-approved consultants and blacklisted. Fast forward to 2015 and ECIL was back in the news for substandard performance in the upgradation of the Multan International Airport.

However, despite the very controversial past, ECIL has been rehired by the land authority for the current scheme.

Meanwhile, the management consultants in the earlier iteration of Scheme 45, Paragon Pvt Ltd, had been blacklisted by MDA, ostensibly for ‘poor performance’. Yet that same consultancy’s services have once again been acquired.

On the issue of vacating land currently under ‘qabza’ of Afghans and IDPs, the secretary of MDA says: “The government will have to resettle them.” The settlers have set up a shanty town with a population of over 1,000. They were parked here in 2013, the federal government extended their stay to 2015 and now 2019 has been set as the new deadline.

However, MDA claims it conducted an anti-encroachment drive on April 1 and recovered 45 acres of land in Sector 11 of the scheme, with bulldozers mowing down illegal homes.

“MDA needs to adopt a methodology that makes this scheme effective and serves the poor,” says Professor Noman Ahmed, stressing that the authority must identify people with immediate housing needs. “Go for incremental housing. Deliver the plots and make these people inhabit those lands before granting the title or legal rights to prevent the land from becoming a tradable asset,” says Dr Ahmed.

Meanwhile, the queues outside Silk Bank started growing longer as March 31 – the date for form submission – neared. Seeing the overwhelming response, and hoping for more collection, MDA extended the date to April 15 and then to April 23. By then, millions had already been deposited into the authority’s account, while no date for computer balloting has been announced. Nevertheless, the amount will continue to accrue profit for the authority.

No date has been set for balloting, which sources maintain won’t take place before six months, though it should be done within 60 days. Till then, the money gathered – which runs in billions – will accrue profit. In this backdrop, one thing is apparent. So far, MDA’s plans sound great on paper. In reality, dust is gathering on the documents of earlier allottees while sand continues to blow all over the site.

Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2019