WHAT should be done when third-party interest has been created where construction has been done illegally? It is an important question involving people’s lives, that can be upended when the courts take notice of building violations and order demolition of the unlawful structures. It is a sad fact brought home time and again of late, especially in Karachi, where buildings stand on thousands of what are meant to be amenity plots, and alongside nullahs and river embankments. Last week, the Supreme Court came down hard on local authorities for allowing encroachments of various kinds. The three-judge bench reminded them that the court had several times decreed that 36,000 plots across the city be cleared of encroachments. It also ordered the demolition of a 15-storey high-rise known as Nasla Tower, a portion of which has, it said, been illegally constructed on land meant for a service road.

The apex court ordered the property builders to refund the buyers of the residential and commercial units within three months. However, it is not merely a question of refunds, the process to disburse which may well not be completed within the time stipulated, and also involve considerable effort on the part of the buyers. The demolition will leave scores of people deprived of their homes overnight for no fault of theirs. What once appeared to be well-laid plans for a secure future will be in tatters. Notwithstanding the principle of caveat emptor or ‘buyer beware’, regular citizens can scarcely be expected to know whether a particular project in which they are investing their hard-earned savings is illegal. What makes the situation much more precarious from the buyer’s point of view is that the regulatory authorities supposed to be looking out for the public are themselves complicit in the many scams playing out on Karachi’s precious real estate. How else did the owners of residential and commercial units being demolished for having been built alongside the city’s Gujjar nullah obtain leases and utility connections? Given the lack of scruples, the chances of substandard construction in such get-rich-quick schemes also increase manifold. But it will take more than fines or reimbursements to discourage avaricious builders and their accomplices in officialdom. The individuals involved must be punished to the fullest extent of the law, so that real deterrence is created. Meanwhile, an autonomous body should be set up to present practical solutions for affected citizens in such unfortunate situations.

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2021

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