IT is farcical that human beings consider new shiny skyscrapers and sprawling gated communities as yardsticks of development and progress, and turn their back on the far-reaching consequences these entail.

Mushrooming housing societies pose serious threats to environment as well as food security of the country. It is an open secret that hundreds of trees are chopped down every year by real estate developers in the name of land development, thereby diminishing the earth’s green cover.

Dwindling green cover means higher urban temperature. The environmental implications of this activity are already visible in the shape of air pollution, ground water depletion and overall rise in temperature. Regression of Lahore’s Air Quality Index is nothing but a fallout of the dwindling green cover. Moreover, temperature in many cities of the country hit a new high during the summers this year.

The never-ending housing spread is fast devouring large swathes of fertile agricultural lands, thereby jeopardising national food security. Real estate developers offer farmers triple the market price, which is a temptation hard to ignore for the farmers who are increasingly selling out their holdings to real estate developers. According to the Kisan Board Pakistan, a non-governmental agricultural advisory and research organisation, housing schemes have so far eaten up 20-30 per cent of the fertile land in Punjab.

In Lahore alone, 70pc of agricultural land has been converted into gated communities. The other cities of the province could also not have escaped this grim phenomenon. Faisalabad has lost 30pc of its fertile land to real estate developers.

With the business-as-usual scenario, the country is likely to face serious food security issues in the coming years. The avaricious real estate tycoons take both the government and the public for a ride by claiming that they are scrambling to meet housing needs of the country.

This argument is nothing more than a humbug. The societies so developed are never meant for poor or low-income strata. They are all meant for the rich. What is more, these posh gated elite communities serve to alienate the poor and make them fall a prey to inferiority complex.

Also, these provide the corrupt and the tax-evaders safe havens to park their ill-gotten wealth by investing in the housing sector. The government’s announcement in April last year that no question would be asked about the source of income invested in the construction sector proved a blessing for people with black money.

Before moving towards solutions to this issue, we need to look into the factors that are forcing the farmers to sell out their holdings. Going by the fact that farming is no longer a profit-making business, government’s apathy has further added to the misery of this class. The farmers are actually forced to sell out their farmlands and look for other businesses.

This is an alarming situation which calls for corrective measures on a war footing. To discourage this activity, there is a need to take the bull by the horns by imposing a complete ban on the conversion of agricultural land into housing societies.

Moreover, the government must incentivise the farmers by giving subsidies on seeds and fertilisers. The government needs to roll out microfinancing schemes for each crop so that the farmers may not have to opt for loans from the greedy middlemen. Moreover, measures need to be taken to give the small farmers unhindered access to market. The pace at which agricultural lands are being sold and housing societies are cropping up suggests that the days are not far when people will literally fight over food grains and there would be chaos. After all, housing societies cannot be converted back into farmlands.

Murrawat Hussain Chiniot

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2021

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