PANDEMONIUM has been unleashed in the print and electronic media regarding the allotment of prize land parcels in Islamabad territory to members of the judiciary, bureaucracy and high-ups in government. It is reported that 400 bureaucrats have benefited from land allotments valued collectively at about Rs25 billion. Apparently, the process of allotment was non-transparent.
The top judge of the Islamabad High Court cancelled the allotment of land parcels to the capital’s judiciary in two sectors. The matter is being probed through a larger bench. Real estate development and plot distribution trends are being equated with malpractice.
The use of authority by the powerful in seeking land is not new in Pakistan. About two decades ago, the land adjacent to Karachi’s National Stadium was acquired by the military establishment for a plush housing scheme for the most privileged. This land had been initially allocated for cricket development.
Acquiring land through covert mechanisms at ridiculously cheap prices, inviting investments from prospective allottees and presenting a land development package bring windfall profits to those monopolising such enterprises. A land tract for housing low-income groups on the M-9 Motorway in Karachi was handed over to a mega developer. The matter landed in the Supreme Court. But the land has yet to be reverted for its intended original purpose.
Land is now viewed as a tradable commodity instead of an asset.
Profiteering off land takes many forms. A first step towards this is expropriating agricultural, pastoral and other such categories of land. In some cases, the development authorities invoke the relevant laws for compulsory acquisition of land for ‘public use’. While the laws stipulate fair and market-based compensation to those affected, the opposite usually happens. When a land and housing development initiative begins, and pastoral or agricultural land is acquired under the relevant laws, the poor and vulnerable get less than fair compensation for their losses.
It is the same story everywhere in the country. The freedom to determine prices, set up a payment schedule, disburse compensation etc vests entirely with the concerned authorities. In case of disagreements, those affected can access the judiciary but it takes long and is expensive.
Several past governments claimed to have launched schemes to benefit the urban poor and low-income groups. However, their approach did not meet the people’s needs. Many years ago, the Lyari Development Authority launched the Hawkes Bay Town project to provide housing to the disadvantaged. The plan and procedure were based on balloting. Interested individuals deposited applications in the banks. The computer determined who would get the land. It is common sense that those with more capital can afford to deposit multiple forms and have a greater chance of obtaining a plot.
It is an accepted principle that plots are given to those who will occupy it for residential purposes. This approach, as successfully demonstrated in schemes like Khuda ki Basti, is a viable means of curbing speculation. The Sindh Disposal of Urban Land Ordinance, 2002, incorporated this factor to benefit the poor. It is sad to note that this pro-poor law was repealed by the Sindh Assembly in 2006. The law had institutionalised a mechanism for the transparent allotment of land to the urban poor which is now disbursed arbitrarily. The law must be brought back.
Political favours are often given in the form of land. In fact, political interest in determining land supply supersedes not only urban and regional planning considerations and policies but also legal limitations. Whereas the upper tiers of government are mostly involved, the chief ministers of various provincial governments have played a key role in land allotment. Government departments, law-enforcement agencies, financial institutions and urban development authorities simply play the role of messenger while the working classes end up in katchi abadis and other precarious settlements that are now routinely bulldozed.
The country still possesses considerable reserves of state land which in time will become part of the urban areas. Historically, such land was considered an asset and carefully utilised for residential, commercial, agricultural, recreational, industrial and other purposes, at least in the large cities. This approach has changed considerably. Instead of an asset, land is now viewed as a tradable commodity. This perception has given rise to the evolution of a land market which is entirely uncontrolled.
Market forces determine land utilisation and transaction instead of conscious policymaking. In this exercise, no thought is given to the social, ecological or long-term economic consequences. With climate change becoming an existential threat, our authorities must come together to devise statutes and procedures to curb the indiscriminate conversion of pastoral and reserve land into initiatives for personal profit.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2021