Law of the jungle

Updated February 10, 2020

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THE cesspool of corruption that is much of Karachi’s land sector was thoroughly exposed during the Supreme Court proceedings on Thursday and Friday.

A three-judge bench of the apex court, while hearing a case pertaining to illegal construction and encroachments in the metropolis, pointed out the authorities’ brazen malpractices in the disposal of Karachi’s real estate.

Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed took Cantonment Board Clifton to task and ordered it to demolish unlawfully erected buildings within its jurisdiction. Officials of the Sindh Building Control Authority — the provincial body mandated to issue NOCs, approve building plans, etc in accordance with the relevant regulations — were also severely reprimanded for their dereliction of duty. Besides this, the court took note of a number of areas where the land was being put to use for purposes other than those for which it had been allotted and directed that the situation be rectified.

With its much-coveted real estate, Karachi has been no stranger to land scams. Nevertheless, until about two decades ago, there was a modicum of order, an attempt by officialdom to fulfil its responsibility to make the city livable for not only the well-to-do but also the lower-income segments of society. Construction was planned taking existing civic infrastructure into account; green belts and parks were seen as integral to the urban layout.

Now, the law of the jungle has taken over.

Increasing population and the huge, unmet demand for housing has made the real-estate sector doubly attractive in this teeming city. Building and town planning regulations, and environmental concerns, have been swept aside; anything is possible — and on a scale unthinkable before. All it takes are builders with the backing of rapacious elements among the power elite, and, if need be, some ruthless henchmen/local police to provide the muscle. Corrupt revenue officials are of course an integral part of this racket.

However, with officials from regulatory authorities themselves colluding in unlawful real-estate ventures instead of cracking down on them, residents of Karachi often have no idea of the legal status of the land they occupy.

Even if they do, what options do they have? No major, credible low-cost housing scheme has been launched for two decades, giving rise to a mushroom growth of katchi abadis and squatter settlements.

In an inequitable society like ours, it is always those at the bottom of the totem pole who are deprived of shelter and means of employment when officialdom wants to implement court orders “whole-heartedly” — as promised by the Sindh local minister on Saturday.

Consider that while the Empress Market shops were torn down, illegal constructions — particularly commercial ones — backed by powerful quarters remained untouched.

The only durable solution to this free-for-all is to punish to the fullest extent of the law all those complicit in this pernicious racket. The impunity with which Karachi’s precious resource is plundered must end now.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2020