Published January 10, 2021
Construction work underway at the site of Capital Smart City | Photo by the writer
Construction work underway at the site of Capital Smart City | Photo by the writer

The village of Treel, which was once a substantial bus ride away from Rawalpindi, has been practically engulfed by the city. As Rawalpindi city grew along the Grand Trunk Road, new housing societies and Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and Bahria phases were approved. In 2008, a joint venture between DHA and Bahria led to the creation of DHA Valley, for which some land was acquired by buying shamilat (historically common-use land) from the residents of Treel.

Treel is not on the GT Road, but it is a 10-kilometre drive away from Rawat, a major trading and transport hub on the GT Road. It is also located on the Kallar Syedan Road, an important route leading up to Kashmir. Given the several locational advantages the village enjoys, including good access to key roads, proximity to the city, an emerging housing society adjacent to the village, residents of Treel have seen a gradual and progressive rise in its land values.

Today, a roadside residential plot in the small village, 30 kilometres from Rawalpindi city, sells for up to three to four lakh/marla (about 30 square yards). And a commercial plot on the main Kallar Syedan Road sells for approximately five lakh/marla.

For comparison, an off-road agricultural plot, with the potential for developing future road access, can be purchased for as little as 1-2 lakh/marla; and DHA Valley bought the village shamilat at a pittance of a few thousand rupees/marla in the early 2000s.

Rawalpindi city is ‘developing’. With 16 new housing authorities already approved and another 39 awaiting approval, a massive increase in Rawalpindi’s built area is expected. But this is bad news for villagers living around the city, who are being squeezed out of their own land. Who is the development for? And is it able to create opportunities for those most in need?

The prime properties in Treel have seen such a hike in their value that their price is now comparable to that of plots at the Capital Smart City, supposedly the ‘best’ emerging housing society in the country.

Entrepreneurial individuals have become local developers in Treel, subdividing opportunely located agricultural land into plots that can be easily connected to existing roads. Once connected to the roads, the value of the land jumps up immediately, and many residential plots can be planned on what was previously a small piece of agricultural land.

This pattern is getting replicated along the entire Ring Road corridor on a much larger scale, following a model of road driven, strip development. The Rawalpindi Ring Road Economic Corridor, expected to be completed by 2023, will mark a new frontier for the city, making the entire area within the Ring Road ready for development.

But unfortunately, as is often the case, the likely beneficiaries of this development will be urbanites with money, rather than the villagers. While some villagers may be seeing short term monetary gains, the dynamics of the land they call home are changing for good.


In Rawalpindi city, which is becoming engulfed by Islamabad on three sides and is greatly restricted by significant sections of its areas being under the ownership of Cantonments, the civilian government has little room to manoeuvre. Southwards is the only direction it can grow. A significant portion of the Mall Road, the central spine of the city, is utilised by the GHQ and related military amenities, thereby requiring highest standards of security. And because the centre of the city has to be strictly ‘hands off’, the city can only respond to its challenges in the peripheries. The Rawalpindi Ring Road Economic Corridor is thus emerging as a game changer.

Mr Tariq Mehmood, chairman Rawalpindi Development Authority (RDA), says that this will include a 65 kilometre semi-circular Ring Road around the city, and eight economic and industrial zones, modelled after the Faisalabad Industrial Zone, and a Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme. These are interspersed with other logistic centres, such as a dry port, a truck stand, a grain, fruits and vegetable market, and a health city along the corridor.

The government is also focused on a number of inner city projects, including the Lai Expressway, parking lots in key commercial areas of the city and an urban regeneration project based on the prime minister’s vision of Naya Pakistan Housing with mid and high rises. Additionally, the government is also focusing heavily on development of Chahan and Daducha dams, to solve the twin cities’ water shortage problems.

Of these, the dams will be developed entirely by the government (including the land acquisition and the civil works), and land for the Ring Road and the economic/industrial zones are to be acquired by the government under the Land Acquisition Act, and the development work is to be sponsored by private partners.

Enabled by the colonial and blunt tool of the Land Acquisition Act, one of the largest land transfers in the city’s history is underway. The 1894 Land Acquisition Act gives the government the power to acquire privately owned land for a public purpose or to meet the needs of companies. On the frontier of the city’s urban-rural boundary, large tracts of ‘barren’ land are being acquired by the force of the state and the market, to be handed on favourable terms to the country’s biggest real estate developers, industrialists and businessmen.

Dr Naveed Iftikhar, a researcher and academic, insists, “Our policymakers think allocating a piece of land means developing an industrial zone. That’s not how industrial zones are developed.” And so, while the jury is out on whether the economic corridor will become successful, what is clear is that the Ring Road will ensure a massive increase in the city’s built area.

Those who are completely missing from the conversation, and not even benefitting from the meagre rates offered by the government, are the landless; those who rely on communal and pastoral lands and the absence of enclosures to graze their cattle, lease land to grow fodder for their animals or plant wheat for self-consumption.

According to Abdul Sattar Khan’s Urban Expansion, Land Use Land Cover Change and Human Impacts: A Case Study of Rawalpindi (2013), between 1972 and 2012, the built-up area of Rawalpindi city increased at double the rate of the rest of the district, from only 3.2 percent of the total landscape to over 16 percent in 40 years.

With the new Ring Road corridor located many kilometres from the built-area of the city, the government is giving an open licence for the city to expand all the way till the Ring Road and beyond. When asked if the Ring Road will mark a boundary for the city and how the government plans to limit sprawl, Chairman RDA replies, “The rules for that will be developed in the new master plan for the city.”

Unsurprisingly then, incentivised by the relocation of the Islamabad Airport and now the government push for the Ring Road, the land market in the city’s periphery has suddenly become very active. RDA has approved 16 new housing societies totalling an area of 5,500 acres as of September 2020. Thirty-nine new housing societies are awaiting approvals in various stages of development and a further 223 have been declared illegal, even as clear development work can be seen for many on the ground.

The detailed modalities for the developments in the Ring Road Economic Corridor are being worked out. Chairman RDA shares that an industrial zone of 2,000 acres, which will be developed on private-public partnership mode with the Islamabad Chamber of Commerce, has been approved. Another smaller industrial zone will be developed by the Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce of between 1,000-1,500 acres near Rawat, and a health city of over 1,600 acres is also planned.

Rawalpindi currently has an area of approximately 64,000 acres. Altogether, this development represents a massive 20 percent increase in the city’s built area.


Daducha Dam affectees gather at the construction site | Sibte Hassan Turi
Daducha Dam affectees gather at the construction site | Sibte Hassan Turi

The city able to take on such a large scale development work primarily because it is propelled by cheap land.

“Over 85-90 percent of the land being acquired is barren, and a very small proportion is agricultural,” says chairman RDA Mehmood. Because these are deemed waste lands, they can be acquired for very cheap, and the additional value generated by government investment in the area (through roads) can be capitalised to create vast margins of profits.

Conversations with villagers in Chahan and Mandwal (sites of the Capital Smart City) reveal that developers follow a similar method to acquire land. They identify an entrepreneurial local who will do the labour of working with villagers to demarcate individual shares of the village shamilat. (Since shamilat are communal property, selling them requires demarcating shares for all landowners in the village in proportion to the private land they own in the village).

Once an initial mass of the land has been acquired, locals fear that their land will be ‘occupied’ if they remain holdouts and become more willing to sell.

Hafiz Sarwar, a resident of Mandhwal, from which Capital Smart City purchased substantial tracts of land, is quick to identify the rent gap benefits to the company. “We are getting rates of around four lakh per kanal [605 square yards] right now,” Sarwar says. “When they [Capital Smart City] started purchasing land five years ago, they were buying it at as low as 5,000-6,000 rupees per kanal, and were mostly buying shamilat. Now people are selling agricultural land too and the company will buy any land that someone is willing to sell.”

The windfall profits to Capital Smart City can be imagined by the prices it is getting right now from this same land. Sarwar explains, “The company is selling the same land for over 60 lakh/kanal for a residential plot or as much as a crore for a commercial plot that is 4 marla or 1/5th of a kanal in size.”

“Sure, they have done development, but how much could this development cost? Just look at the amount of profits they will be making,” Sarwar says. The villagers who had sold this land at much lower rates earlier, Sarwar points out, cannot benefit from the increase in land value and they can certainly not afford to buy any land at the new rates.

In conversation, most villagers seem resigned to the impacts of development, despondent on not being able to benefit from the best rates being offered in the market. “We sell the land because we need to build homes and savings, we have no other option,” says Haji Umar from Keengharh village.

Sprawling cities bring the uneven geographies of development face to face, with elite housing societies located right next to the villages they have purchased land from — and the rural-urban frontier separated by no more than the walls of gated societies.

“This development will benefit the rich only,” Sarwar adds. “No one from the villages here can afford to buy a four or five marla plot for 30-40 lakh. The villagers cannot even afford to pay the monthly charges these societies charge,” Sarwar says, explaining the changing dynamics. He says that while some people have gotten employed in these societies as maalis [gardeners] and guards for 15,000 rupees a month, the benefits they see are limited.

“If a hospital opens here, we won’t be able to afford to benefit from it,” he says. “If a good university comes here, we won’t be able to send our children there.”


A child holds up a sign at a protest being staged by Daducha Dam affectees | Sibte Hassan Turi
A child holds up a sign at a protest being staged by Daducha Dam affectees | Sibte Hassan Turi

As a resourceful investor, the Capital Smart City is able to negotiate with the government for services like direct access to the motorway through a dedicated interchange, and use the windfall profits from its investment to privately develop world-class municipal services in a gated society. But in the surrounding villages, villagers rely on communally maintained water schemes, one-off developed schemes for sewage drains and no system for managing the solid waste.

Urbanisation brings with it benefits of municipal services provision but, in the city peripheries, this service provision is handed over to private housing societies. Sprawling cities bring the uneven geographies of development face to face, with elite housing societies located right next to the villages they have purchased land from — and the rural-urban frontier separated by no more than the walls of gated societies.

Similar influence is held by the Islamabad and Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce in making the industrial zones and economic corridors successful. The development of industrial zones will happen on the public-private partnership model, where the government will forcibly acquire land under the Land Acquisition Act. RDA’s Mehmood says that all acquisition will be done under “reasonable market rates.” The businessmen and industrialists are then to bring the investment to develop these zones and shift the big industries from Islamabad’s Sector I-9 to these new industrial zones along the Ring Road.

Both the real estate developments, and the economic corridor developments, offer investors a seat at the table by design, enabling them to comfortably bring low-quality industrial jobs, and high-quality housing in the city peripheries, such that the investors can capitalise on the rent gap available on the rural-urban frontier.

Looking at the jobs this development offers, the government has made a trade-off of industrial versus agricultural jobs. With agriculture written off as a failed project in Rawalpindi, the government is focusing on bringing industrial employment to absorb excess labour.

While it is patently untrue that agriculture cannot be developed in Rawalpindi, the key thing to observe is that in neither of these plans, do the subjects of development get any real say about the mode of development they would prefer.

In India, one way in which local villagers have exercised their voice in determining the nature of the land use changes along its economic corridors has been through gram panchayats (village councils). Where successfully functional, villagers have used these local governing bodies to oppose so-called developments, and even secure equities in the new enclaves where deemed profitable.

In the case of Rawalpindi, the villagers have only gotten a seat at the table in negotiations of the rate set for the forced appropriation of land for the Ring Road. The 2,500 affected people, who own the 1,825 acres of land being acquired for the Ring Road at a total cost of 6.7 billion rupees, are reportedly being offered an upper rate of 300,000 rupees/kanal (or 15,000 rupees/marla), and a lower rate of 70,000 rupees/kanal (or 3500 rupees/marla).

The affectees are demanding a rate of, at least, 100,000 rupees/marla, which is still three to five times lower than the market rate being obtained by developers benefitting from this development.

Those who are completely missing from the conversation, and not even benefitting from the meagre rates offered by the government, are the landless; those who rely on communal and pastoral lands and the absence of enclosures to graze their cattle, lease land to grow fodder for their animals or plant wheat for self-consumption.


The banks of the river Lai are already a multi-use, multi-functional site of a dense and mixed-use community | Photo by the writer
The banks of the river Lai are already a multi-use, multi-functional site of a dense and mixed-use community | Photo by the writer

People on the peripheries of Rawalpindi are heavily dependent on daily commuting in and out of the city. “Agriculture happens in our villages still, but many people have developed houses in the city or found jobs there,” Sarwar says. In Treel, the government and the army was a substantial source of employment, but the new generations are finding jobs as migrant labour in the Gulf, and as school teachers, retail workers or in basic service provision, in the nearby DHAs and Bahria phases. Others are moving towards business ventures in the city centre.

With the development of an entire region around the Ring Road, the jobs, resident miss-match is expected to exacerbate. Urban planning research establishes conclusively that sprawl has very tangible costs for cities, in making travel expensive and excluding those without cars and motorcycles from access to jobs or good housing, and privileging the city for the suburbanites.

In both Rawalpindi and Islamabad, a failure to provide new jobs and adequate housing is pushing the rich and poor to city peripheries, with the difference only in the distance they can afford to move.

“A labourer does not travel beyond 15-20 minutes and cannot spend more than 15-20 rupees per trip,” says Hamid Ullah, a community-based activist in Rawalpindi. Since Islamabad does not have any affordable housing available, informal low income housing is developing in its peripheries. New low- and middle-income communities are also developing in Chakra on the Misrial Road, towards the western side of Rawalpindi.

Hamid Ullah further adds that because city land is getting very expensive and congested, people are forced to sell land in the core city, split the inheritance among family members and move out. There is a consensus among residents and city developers that anyone who can afford to, has moved out to these private housing societies. Others are forced to choose more affordable areas or stay put in rapidly commercialising surroundings.

For the residents of historic urban Rawalpindi, this centripetal force is felt in dual ways. Not only are they left behind as their relatives and friends move out, they are forced to live in an increasingly congested, but rapidly commercialising, city centre. In the area of Sarafa Bazaar and its surroundings, for example, a large commercial plaza is coming up behind the Qila area. In Bhabra Bazaar, three residential houses have been demolished and new banners give news of an upcoming motorcycle plaza.

Residents report serious health effects of the industrial spray pollution that comes from the motorcycle shops, and point to the creeping tentacles of commercial development that have overtaken the main roads and are rapidly coming into the inner gullys. Residents also complain of shopkeepers who encroach on their right of way, making it difficult for girls to go to the nearby government school, and the congestion that makes the streets unwalkable and the general area unliveable.

Not only does sprawl create sterile, single-use exclusionary enclaves in cities, it is a counter force to creating dynamic, vibrant cities which offer a density of activities and opportunities for interaction. “New housing societies boost economic activities and create jobs, shopping malls come up and labour opportunities for construction work arise, but this work is not suitable for the working class,” says Hamid Ullah. “The people who live in these housing societies don’t go buy grocery on a daily basis from the nearby khoka [small cabin], there is no sense of muhallaydari [community], the local dahi bhallay wala cannot afford the shop in the mall and there is no space for the rehrri walas [mobile cart vendors] and chhaabrri walas [on-street vendors].”

It was labour from Rawalpindi that built the capital city of Pakistan with their sweat and effort, but it is increasingly treated by the Islamabad administration and citizens as dirty backwaters. ‘Do you want Islamabad to become Pindi?’ is a common refrain heard from Islamabadis.

With the city’s development model focused on an economic corridor in the city’s periphery, the existing inequalities in the city will only get exacerbated. The corridor promises to move jobs further from the city centre, and provide highways and expressways to facilitate the car owners in reaching suburban societies and commuting daily to jobs. While the Ring Road promises to resolve congestion, the induced traffic that the accompanying land use changes and larger distances between jobs and housing will bring, will almost certainly increase congestion in the long run and disadvantage the poor.

And therein lies the rub. When the government juggernaut comes into action, it will wipe away everything in its way and create ‘development’, but who is the development for? Is this model of development able to create communities? And opportunities, in close proximity to those who are in greatest need of them?


At a Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (Pide)-curated panel on urban planning in Islamabad, the Director Master Planning from the Capital Development Authority (CDA), Zafar Iqbal, was asked, where does the CDA expect low-income families, the low-income service providers like house help, maids and drivers etc in Islamabad to live.

He responded with two equally depressing answers. One, he said that CDA bye-laws require large houses to have servant quarters to house the help. Two, he said: Pindi.

It was labour from Rawalpindi that built the capital city of Pakistan with their sweat and effort, but it is increasingly treated by the Islamabad administration and citizens as dirty backwaters. ‘Do you want Islamabad to become Pindi?’ is a common refrain heard from Islamabadis.

But thousands of people travel daily from Pindi to Islamabad to do low-income blue and white collar jobs. And Islamabad and Rawalpindi’s river Lai is the convenient dumping conduit for Islamabad’s untreated sewage. Once out of Islamabad and transported to Rawalpindi, the smelly remains of the capital city’s waste can be completely out of its residents’ sight. CDA would clearly like to keep poverty outside Islamabad’s boundaries, and Rawalpindi fulfils that function through the housing that has rapidly densified along the river Lai and the surrounding IJP Road.

The 24/7 dumping of sewage in the Lai creates an incessant odour, and annual floods put the residents around it under continuous risk of displacement. Several donor projects have tried to resolve the sewage treatment problem of the Lai and come up with plans to mitigate its flood risks. However, except for a disconnected road along the Lai’s banks and some supporting project funding to the government, not much could be achieved in restoring the Lai to its non-polluted state.

Today, the Lai Expressway plan is back with renewed vigour as the government is struggling to find private-public funding to implement it. But a road exists along most of the Lai, one that is extensively used by the residents. The signal free expressway, on the other hand, will only facilitate those who seek to move rapidly through the city from one end to the other. The expressway will destroy the ecosystem that the river provides, as the unofficial space for many activities, from informal vending to parking space for rickshaws and rehrris and late night socialising sessions. To rationalise the cost, the sewage treatment component has been dropped even as chairman RDA commits to striving his hardest to try and find funding for it.

According to research conducted by Dr Daanish Mustafa, “The women research subjects in the Lai basin...almost universally call for removal of encroachments in the Lai flood plain, management of liquid and solid waste, and then construction of a park with fruit trees and playgrounds along the Lai.” In contrast, he points out, “the masculinist vision of the Lai as a concrete lined stream, entombed under plazas, is finding articulation in the Lai Expressway project,” even as many hydrologists and geographers researching the river have consistently advocated that “a highway along the banks of a river like Lai would be destroyed in a very short period of time, by the flood regime of the river.” Dr Mustafa and others have proposed a park or a bike path for the area instead.

One way for the government to generate revenue is to then use the increase in land value from a signal free corridor (which will pass through the densest parts of the city, and likely rip the communities in its way apart), to develop high-value commercial and residential projects along it. The ‘blank slate’ fallacy of the project fails to acknowledge that a vibrant, thriving low- and middle-income community already runs businesses, creates housing and generates jobs in the formal and informal sectors in the millions along the river and, perhaps, what it needs, more than anything else, is upliftment of the existing communities rather than a replacement.


The costs of sprawl are difficult to quantify and challenging to visualise. In Karachi and Lahore, the impacts of sprawl and poor planning can be felt in urban flooding, heat waves and the annual smog season. Both Islamabad and Rawalpindi see unhealthy air quality incidents with an increasing frequency. Yet, the planning vision for the city prioritises a Ring Road to move goods and vehicles around the city, or yet another expressway (the Lai Expressway), to get them through the city as quickly as possible. Neither seek to develop the city core as a site that can host vibrant communities.

The direction in which the city’s planning is going is clear. The low-income, the landless and the marginalised are being systematically squeezed out, the environment is rapidly degenerating, and a car-oriented, road driven planning is keeping the poor from accessing affordable housing or cheaply accessible economic opportunities. Instead of going compact, our cities are rapidly eating up open space in the name of development.

“We need to rethink our relationship with open spaces,” Dr Imran Khalid, Head, Environment and Climate Change at SDPI, says. “To the land developer or policy makers, the sole value of an open space comes from the potential monetary exploits. What is forgotten and, indeed, ignored is the intrinsic value that such open spaces add to the human experience. Something as ordinary as a butterfly landing on a dandelion can be invaluable to the outlook of a child who witnesses the act. Open spaces provide innumerable environmental benefits. For example, they are an antidote to the ‘concretised’ heat islands being created in our urban and peri-urban areas. The lone focus on ‘real estate development,’ as it stands, does not account for such intangibles.”

A drastic change in direction is needed if we are to face the realities of a country that is situated at the point of highest vulnerability from climate change in a world at the tipping point of climate destruction. It is time to let our development models be led by people instead of brick and mortar, and real estate developers.

The writer has a masters in City Planning and works as a citizen planner in Rawalpindi

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 10th, 2021



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