AT the start of 2019, there appeared to be a golden opportunity for the land mafia making illegal fortunes off Karachi’s precious real estate to be stopped in its tracks. Unfortunately, what has transpired could only have emboldened this cabal as well as aspiring profiteers.
On March 21, the Supreme Court ordered Bahria Town to pay Rs460 billion over seven years as settlement dues for land it had illegally acquired for its gargantuan housing project in Karachi. That worked out to nearly $3bn at the then prevailing exchange rate – an eye-watering sum of money by any standard. But that is not the complete story.
With numerous projects across Pakistan, Bahria’s modus operandi has been the elephant in the room for a long time even though its dubious activities were no secret. Cultivating collaborators from among mega-influential segments of the ruling elite is a time-tested prescription for impunity in this country, and Bahria’s owner, Malik Riaz, has honed it to a fine art.
Bahria Town Karachi (BTK) is believed to be the largest housing project in all of South Asia (In April 2016, when Dawn’s first investigative report on Bahria came out, it measured 23,300 acres). Located in Malir district on the city’s outskirts, the rollout of BTK was accompanied by a ruthless campaign to strong-arm indigenous communities into ‘selling’ their land, thereby upending a generations-long existence. The landscape here bursts into life with seasonal — albeit unpredictable — rains, enabling the locals to reap a plentiful harvest for sale in the city’s fruit and vegetable markets; livestock rearing and poultry farming supplement their income. The chaos and misery caused by the arrival of Bahria and other ‘developers’ in the neighbourhood – backed by the brute force of SSP Malir Rao Anwar’s police and the political clout of the local PPP leadership – went largely unreported in the media.
On May 4, 2018, however, there was a reckoning. The Supreme Court, in a searing 98-page majority verdict, declared that Bahria had illegally acquired land for BTK and that the entire process was null and void from the outset. The judgment came at the end of proceedings stretching over four years, thanks to rapacious PPP bigwigs and Sindh government functionaries, and a corrupt provincial land bureaucracy, all determined to protect their huge stakes in BTK. The three-judge bench was misled at every turn; its queries were met with prevarication or downright stonewalling. NAB dragged its feet when ordered to investigate Bahria’s acquisition of land in the area.
Nevertheless, when it finally came, it was an unprecedented ruling that, if implemented in letter and in spirit, could have had far-reaching consequences on the activities of unscrupulous builders and their powerful partners in crime. It had particularly harsh words for the land bureaucracy which it said “chose to dance at the drumbeats of a business tycoon without caring what the law provided”.
On March 21, 2019, after two months of hearings and much back-and-forth with Bahria, the bench constituted to implement the May 4 verdict finally accepted the firm’s offer of Rs460bn as settlement dues. To protect third party interest, the judges allowed Bahria to continue developing its project over a specified area of 16,986 acres, with the observation that it had “no title, interest or possession of any other land owned by the Government of Sindh”.
However, many consider the ruling to have overlooked some important aspects of the original judgment. Most inexplicable, and unfortunate, was the direction to NAB not to file any references against Bahria “for the time being” unless there was any default in making payments or violation “in any of the terms and conditions mentioned […]”.
According to sources in NAB, an investigation into Bahria’s suspect land dealings in Karachi was prepared and ready to be filed: the document names 34 people in connection with the scam. The March 21 order put the brakes on any follow through.
Moreover, a recent investigative report in Dawn has illustrated with satellite imagery that Bahria is extending its project into Jamshoro in total violation of the ruling. What message does it send to other ‘land developers’ of this ilk if the courts take no notice?
There is now an ongoing tussle between the centre and the Sindh government over the Rs460bn. Both sides have filed identical applications in the Supreme Court, laying claim to the amount being deposited by Bahria with the court. The provincial government contends it has the right to it because the project is located within its jurisdiction. Consider that none of the government functionaries who colluded with Bahria have been held accountable for their crimes. Transferring the funds to Sindh, at least without extremely strict supervision by a disinterested party, could be tantamount to getting the cat to watch the cream.
However, the PTI government’s role in the Bahria saga is also open to question. In early December, as a result of what the international media described as a “dirty money” probe, the UK’s National Crime Agency announced it had agreed to a £190 million settlement offer with Malik Riaz. This includes a 10-bedroom, seven-storey, £50m property overlooking Hyde Park. In line with its international obligations, the agency announced it would return the assets, “suspected to have derived from bribery and corruption overseas”, to the Pakistani state.
However, the government, which as a matter of course breathes fire and brimstone over “billions” in ill-gotten gains stashed abroad by a corrupt elite (mainly opposition political leaders), has hardly been cock-a-hoop about the recovery. On the contrary, government ministers have mumbled something about some confidentiality agreement preventing them from divulging any details. Granted, the settlement is a civil rather than criminal matter, and, according to the NCA, “did not represent a finding of guilt”, but it is curious the property tycoon would surrender such a huge amount rather than prove the absence of wrongdoing.
Outrageously enough, Malik Riaz has claimed that the funds would go towards the Rs460bn settlement arrived at with the Supreme Court in March. There has so far been no clear-cut rebuttal by the government of what would be a mind-boggling travesty of justice. The story will continue to unfold in 2020.
Published in Dawn 2019 Year Ender