Various news reports inform that the federal government is setting up a Pakistan Island Development Authority (Pida). The promulgation of a legal instrument and corresponding preparations are in process, led by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs. As a consequence, various quarters of the civil society fear the possible urbanisation of Bundal and Buddo Island lands. It is a common observation that these islands are a prime environmental asset for Karachi and adjoining territories. This proposal has been spearheaded without even consulting the relevant government functionaries including the Government of Sindh.

The decision only highlights the short term revenue gain to the exchequer without taking into consideration the impacts on the affected communities, the ecology of the region and the vicinity as well as the larger scenario of city planning. This is not the only attempt regarding the dubious transaction of land in the city.

Reckless sale of land along the Northern Bypass, clandestine land acquisition by a mega realtor along Super Highway, unabated pressure on Pakistan Railways to sell its priceless land assets to “offset” its financial losses and the ‘successful’ creation of a plush housing scheme for military officers adjacent to Karachi’s National Stadium are all examples of non-transparent land transactions without any logical reasoning or reference to city planning practices.

The policymakers generally view land as a commodity which can be traded to obtain short term financial gains. From a city planning and sociological perspective, this is not correct. Land is a finite asset which can only be used for public benefits. Its utilisation is best determined through a professionally sound and socially appropriate planning process.

Reckless sale of land along the Northern Bypass, clandestine land acquisition by a mega realtor along Super Highway, unabated pressure on Pakistan Railways to sell its priceless land assets to “offset” its financial losses and the ‘successful’ creation of a plush housing scheme for military officers adjacent to Karachi’s National Stadium are all examples of non-transparent land transactions

A healthy urban life can not be imagined without a proper utilisation policy for land with a well-detailed land-use plan to lay down all the proposed functions concerning existing constraints and potentials. Given the ongoing crisis of infrastructural decay, poor governance and declining urban management capacities, it is crucial that any new venture must be examined for its operational viability and sustainability in the short and long term periods.

For example, the Karachi Port Trust has begun the unabated process of land reclamation along the Mai Kolachi Bypass. This area was the site of backwater and thick mangrove vegetation since ages. The British had left this area open due to the fact that water from the port would enter this area through Chinna Creek and after interface with the marine forests, get flushed and cleaned. This natural ocean cleansing operation has been completely disrupted due to the reckless land reclamation for anticipated real estate development. A security outfit, mandated to serve the airports, has launched a large scale real estate scheme along the Super Highway. It appears that a new city is in the making along this premier corridor of movement.

It is found that land policies do not reflect the range of quasi-legal situations existing between formal and informal housing. Various intermediate situations have been discovered in the land and housing scenario which can not be described as legal from the statutory standpoint. As per standard definitions, the land or housing which is formally registered through the offices of registrar after completion of formalities related to the title is recognised as legal properties. According to another definition, the property which can be accepted by a housing finance institution for mortgage financing is a legally valid property. Spot field studies have shown that there are many lacunae where land and housing units fall short of meeting any of the two conditions.

In reference to land, the plots floated in any scheme of development authorities, legally constituted cooperative societies or any other land-owning agency are termed as formally titled land. The legality of such land parcels is only verified and accepted when the leasing conditions of the concerned neighbourhood/locality are completely fulfilled. Katchi abadies which have been approved for regularisation but await the initiation of leasing process; neighbourhoods which await the notification of amelioration plans; localities where change of land use has taken place and areas that have a change of status or jurisdiction are only a few types which can not be compared with a normally leased area.

Owners and prospective buyers have to suffer due to indifference of planning and development agencies. However powerful groups acquire such properties at lower prices and harass the stakeholders — including legal heirs — to submit to their demands. In short, all this evidence is an anti-climax to an efficient land market.

The launch of land sales schemes is so designed that speculation automatically evolves in the process. Land development agencies allot land parcels at a very low selling price. As the owner completes the formalities, he already possesses the opportunity of delaying construction and accruing profits on idle land. Since powerful interest groups benefit from this in-built procedural defect, they are averse to change the practice.

Regulatory controls in the form of non-utilisation fees or any other form of levies are either non-enforceable or too minuscule to bother the property owners. A simple outcome is the artificial rise in property demands that results in a rush supply of land and housing without any urban planning blueprint. Apart from government and semi-government agencies, some ‘preferred and privileged’ realtors attract substantial investments from local and overseas clients on a routine basis. These instances render land management and control an even more uphill task. Such a laissez-faire market mechanism does not allow the real shelterless and needy to benefit from land supply.

It is wishfully assumed that by revising the statutes and regulations of building and city planning, land management strategies would emerge automatically. The realities are otherwise. Building and city planning controls affect a small minority of urban areas of our cities. Federal districts, cantonments and military estates, port authorities, railways, katchi abadies of various ages and profiles are not under the writ of building control mechanism of the city. Thus the land market and construction boom generated from these locations soon exert pressure on other city areas. Building code violations, blatant changes in land use and mindless adoption of street commercialisation policies play havoc in the domain of land control.

The current scenario demands various actions without any further delay. It is an established fact that land is a finite asset which requires very carefully utilisation, largely on the basis of social needs. Any land transaction that is initiated must be finalised after inviting views and observations from the concerned stakeholders. Major scale transactions must be controlled by the provincial government as per standing statutes. To instil transparency in the routine processes, the various government departments — including the military authorities — must be requested to publish the details of the land owned or controlled by them.

The provincial government must create an autonomous planning agency for Karachi to deal with land management, infrastructure and planning issues for the city. This step shall greatly help streamline the otherwise haywire scenario of misappropriation and ill-managed utilisation of land in Karachi. An efficient and transparent land market can cause enormous governance reform that we all desire.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 5th, 2020