COLONIAL masters created powerful allies by bestowing upon them large tracts of lands in various parts of the subcontinent in exchange for their unconditional loyalty and services in times of peace and war. This elitist and unjust practice was later continued in Pakistan with much zeal and gusto, making it virtually a right for all those who had some influence over or stake in state affairs, though it’s moot if the state receives loyalty and service, in real terms, from the recipients of state lands.
Historically, the greater chunks of precious lands have been awarded to powerful elites — politicians, civil and military bureaucrats, judges, journalists, capitalists, feudals, developers, etc — leaving little provision for the poor and landless. No wonder, then, that one fifth of our population has no proprietary rights or shelter, despite the fact that it’s these people who have been loyally rendering services in all economic spheres — agriculture, industry, construction, transport, mining, fishing and so on. These landless masses have been disentitled from public lands only because they lack a political organisation or legislative representation to assert their fundamental rights against the interests of well-entrenched propertied classes and rent-seekers.
The most appalling effects of this elitist land policy are manifest in Karachi, a metropolis whose lands have become an odious object of rapacious scramble by corrupt politicians, corporate interests, powerful institutions, compromised administrators, collusive regulators and politico-ethnic mafias. Indeed, the city’s plight presents a symbiotic nexus between the unjust enrichment of these powerful actors and the city’s unchecked, unplanned and ungovernable expansion. It has become more robust in the wake of the state authorities’ half-done operation: retrieving the city from a violent meltdown, but leaving its fundamental structural, administrative and regulatory problems unfixed. The city continues to suffer from many a malaise:
Master plan: Perhaps nowhere in the world is a city expanding so quickly (horizontally, vertically and demographically) without a master plan. Karachi has none. The plan conceived during the Musharraf era and sanctioned by the Supreme Court never saw the light of day, mainly due to resistance by multiple jurisdictions, KMC, cantonments, Lyari and Malir development authorities, the Board of Revenue, etc. Each had its own conflicting land policy and implementation machinery. None wished to fall under one overarching authority to bring the disparate divisions into an orderly whole. As a result, administrative chaos persists.
Great chunks of public land have been awarded to the elites, leaving little provision for the poor.
Regulation: Notwithstanding Karachi’s plethora of authorities and regulations, the city has been developed less in accordance with law and more in the interests of powerful developers. For instance, it is routine to see zonal regulations being ‘softened’ to convert large swathes of residential areas into commercial zones, disturbing and straining already scarce ecological resources. In fact, hanging the zoning regulations/area standards has been the surest way of making billions of rupees. The beneficiaries are builders, politicians, bureaucrats and sometimes even criminal facilitators, but the cost of tampering with the physical capacity, zonal density and urban aesthetics is paid heavily by the city — a ‘living’ organism — when it loses its natural habitat for breathing, living and growing.
Infrastructure: Among Karachi’s many woes is the continuous disarray and disfiguring of its physical infrastructure. Under the nose of its multitier administration — provincial, local, cantonment, regulatory agencies, etc — powerful mafias continue to encroach upon lands meant for public amenities: parks, graveyards, schools, clinics, etc. Appallingly, additional storeys are illegally added to buildings constructed on small plots in narrow lanes and congested areas. These fragile structures not only imperil their residents but also create obstructions for rescue and municipal operations.
In fact, seasonal urban flooding, which plays havoc with roads and low-lying areas during the monsoon, is largely caused by the illegal encroachment on the KMC nullahs. Encroachments block access to heavy machinery required to dredge these nullahs. In 2018, on the recommendation of the Water Commission, the Supreme Court directed the authorities to remove encroachments from 30 large nullahs that drain most of the city’s effluent. The order was never implemented as the commission stood disbanded. The federal government has now asked the National Disaster Management Authority and the armed forces to help clear the clogged nullahs in Karachi, which is a statutory duty of the city and provincial governments.
Borders: Since the city’s land has become scarce, large corporate and institutional builders are pushing its boundaries north and eastward. DHA City and Bahria Town have already developed their respective mega projects over thousands of acres of land along the strategic Super Highway/M9. But their thirst for land is not quenched. Recently, both have separately acquired large tracts of public lands for ‘future use’.
Similarly, thousands of acres of public land have been allotted to developers and investors under the umbrella of Zulfiqarabad — a city to be developed in district Thatta. But given all the secrecy, we don’t know whether or not these public lands have been allotted to DHA, Bahria or others through a mandatory public auction. Even if codal formalities have been met, the land aggrandisement in the guise of high-end development by powerful interests is not justified on moral grounds, given the fact that more than half the city’s population lives in katchi abadis. Moreover, the excessive grant of public land to powerful developers and elites will have disastrous consequences — promoting inequality and injustice, displacing local communities, disturbing demographic balance thereby breeding political and ethnic conflicts, and more.
Therefore, it is time the elitist aggrandisement of land is stopped. Let the landless and shelterless have a piece of land, which is their historical right.
The writer is a lawyer and an academic.
Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2020