One may start off by making a sweeping statement; anybody who is somebody in the country is in some way an overt or covert agent of land developers. Land development here is not what is defined in the books.

Land development usually means altering the landscape and changing the land forms for purposes of agriculture or housing or industry. Intention is to meet the housing, industrial, commercial and recreational needs. But here what it means is to acquire the fertile agricultural land and subdividing it into parcels for the express purpose of building residential colonies and commercial zones.

One may say that there is an immense pressure of exponentially increased population. But why the wildfire caused by storm winds of population growth had not been contained in the first place, one may ask? And if we have a large population as is the case, we have all the more reason to protect and save our precious agricultural land which is shrinking by the day. Can we forget that humans lived for millions of years without homes in the distant past but not without food? Land gifts us food that ensues our growth and survival. Aren’t we on a self-destructive path? We surely are as we in our lust want to gobble down all the land instead of savouring what it produces for our consumption.

Our cities are damaged living organisms suffering from acute vertigo; they refuse to go up as if height threateningly appears as gallows to wing from. Verticality is as something that would cause their undoing. Thus they love to wallow in the mud of horizontal expansion. Each metropolis seems coiled round itself in a loop. It has in fact no legs to stand on and refuses to rise up to its full potential height. It’s a mammoth that loves to trample the village green for its greens.

Land developers and officialdom have formed an unholy alliance with the sole aim of making a quick buck. Plans are made for housing with total disregard of social needs and ecological requirements with official approval. The developers sell the subdivided lots to the buyers on the paper. After selling the developers rarely deliver what they promised. They can keep the buyers waiting for decades with no legal repercussions. A court case here is more likely to take a life time to reach its conclusion. So the aggrieved party is deterred to enter into legal proceedings for their obvious deleterious effects.

Executive is so much in cahoots with the land developers that it can go to the extent of offering the prized state land to the developers for a pittance. So much so that it officially acquires private land dirt cheap from the owners in the name of public good to add to the coffers of the investors. It’s not generosity but rather a mutually beneficial ghoulish deal between the corrupt and the powerful at the expense of the people and national resources.

Property tycoons in the Punjab got a huge chunk of forest land owned by the state for a private housing scheme causing an ecological disaster in the area.

Sindh went a step further when applying the coercion of law, it acquired ancestral lands from the poor peasants and cultivators, and eventually transferred them to a developer for a huge private residential colony. In both the cases the people were deprived of their assets and the state robbed of its resources by the vested interests unabashedly. It’s painfully noticeable that housing colonies built with the official largesse offered the masses nothing by way of ameliorating the housing problem as they have been posh and exorbitantly expensive beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. The practice relentlessly continues.

The latest example of official vandalism is the proposed destruction of green strip along the river Ravi which has been providing Lahore with fruits, vegetables and flowers apart from being its lung. Cynics retort; why do the landowners sell their lands? Official role in such dirty deals has been already hinted at. Secondly, successive governments and government departments with their skewed policies, indifference, inefficiency and corrupt practices have made it almost impossible for the growers, especially for the small land holders, to continue in the business of agriculture as it’s no longer sustainable.

Expensive low quality, often spurious, inputs are pushed down the farmers’ throat resulting in poor yield of crops. And officially fixed low prices of harvested crops alienate the cultivators from the land forcing them to sell it at the first opportunity. Generally, in the country production of any kind has been made risky, cumbersome, open to unwarranted official interference. So several decades ago people started drifting towards trade which isn’t frequently disrupted because strong trade organisations keep the official parasites at bay with their political clout. Now, it seems, everybody is into real estate. With sort of commercial acumen and little labour, one can do business of buying and selling properties. Almost all investment at the moment goes into the business of land development.

No one seems to realise that this is a dead investment. What it’s all about is that a piece of land or property keeps changing hands without adding much to the real national wealth. In order to avoid disaster in the near future, at least three things need to be done on urgent basis to begin with. One, we must plan our population. Two, we must develop our agriculture. Three, we must launch a well-thought out and richly funded national campaign for IT education.

Planned population will reduce the strain on the meagre national resources enabling us to plan our future. The state needs to bring religious and secular segments on a single platform. Agriculture has been our traditional asset. Developed agriculture would eliminate the prospect of mass starvation and ensure physical and mental health of our people.

Cities must not be allowed to expand horizontally. For vertical expansion literally sky is the limit. All the strips of land lying waste along motorways, highways, roads, canals and railway tracks must be brought under cultivation. Last but not least big houses mustn’t be allowed in the urban areas. Feudal practice of owning sprawling houses be discouraged by excessively taxing them. Planned population and developed agriculture will create a sense of well-being among us. And IT education will not only connect us with the fast moving contemporary world but also generate revenues. What it requires is harnessing of intellectual resources.

All such measures taken simultaneously can create conditions whereby we will have a modicum of prosperity in the future. Will we cross the Rubicon? Remember if we continue sowing pebbles, we would be like people who were “sitting on the wall eating / And what they were eating was stones –a new kind of food”. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2021

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