THE assault by an enraged group of farmers on a provincial revenue team assigned to acquire land for the multibillion-dollar Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project on Tuesday was unfortunate. But it was expected, and may also prove to be a harbinger of worse things unless the government agrees to give the market price of land to the thousands of landowners who would have to relocate because of the rulers’ insistence on building a new city on the outskirts of Lahore.

The poor farmers are apparently not against the project, but they rightfully want a fair market price to help them start over since the private developers for whom their land is being acquired will be raking in billions of dollars in profit. Currently, they are being offered only a fraction of the market value of their land. The Punjab government does not appear to be in any mood to listen to the grievances of the affected population, let alone agree to their demand for higher prices.

It is sad that Prime Minister Imran Khan has decided to go ahead with the project although the PTI — when in opposition — had criticised such large brick-and-mortar, high-visibility schemes pursued by its predecessors. Apparently, the painful economic slowdown during the first half of Mr Khan’s tenure and the debilitating impact of Covid-19 on growth may have convinced him otherwise.

For the last one year or so, the leadership seems to have pinned its hopes on real-estate development projects for faster recovery before the next general election in 2023. The government may achieve some of its targets but in the process would lose the support of the poor who would be left out.

It is unfortunate that Pakistan’s ruling elite has developed a sort of consensus — as well as a deep economic interest — in high-visibility projects as the panacea for the nation’s financial woes. Therefore, we see most state resources flowing into expensive schemes offering limited economic dividends and that too mostly to benefit the wealthy. Look at the generous tax and other incentives announced for the construction sector in the name of encouraging low-cost, affordable housing for the poor.

The biggest beneficiaries of these concessions are moneyed people with questionable sources of income who have been given general amnesty and access to more banking credit. The obsession of the elite with real estate has in the last few decades also resulted in shrinking space for the poor and middle-income groups in our sprawling cities. This is not a recipe for progress.

If we are to achieve inclusive and sustainable growth, the government will have to change its priorities and start investing in social infrastructure — schools, hospitals, sanitation, water supply etc. It is time for the government to stop acting as an agent of powerful lobbies and start serving the public at large.

Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2021

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