THE contrast could not be more stark, and elite capture no better illustrated. On the one hand are the middle-class owners of apartments in Nasla Tower watching their hard-earned investment reduced to rubble with the court-ordered demolition of the Karachi high-rise. On the other are privileged segments of society whose dubious real estate ventures have continued unimpeded over the years, riding roughshod over land use regulations and earning eye-watering fortunes for those involved. But has this brazen inequity become unsustainable in the face of an increasingly aware public, or will the writ of the law continue to apply only to ‘ordinary’ citizens?

On Friday, the Supreme Court expressed serious displeasure over commercial activities and construction of housing societies on land specifically allotted for defence and strategic purposes. The three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed has been hearing a matter pertaining to the alleged conversion of cantonment land, and raised questions rarely asked of the security establishment. “Were wedding halls, cinemas and housing societies built for defence purposes?” was one of the queries posed to the defence secretary. On Wednesday, it touched upon the commercialisation of parks/ amenity plots in cantonment areas.

Read: 'Are wedding halls and cinemas for defence?' CJP grills govt official over military land's commerical use

There have been a few occasions in the past when governments have made tentative efforts to address this thorny issue. In 2014, a parliamentary committee was for the first time set up to examine the defence ministry’s use of land for commercial projects. Some reports by the auditor general also pointed out similar misuse by various branches of the security establishment. And yet, nothing changed on the ground — even in the face of specific orders issued by Justice Gulzar himself in 2019, before he became the country’s top judge.

The full might of the law has, however, been witnessed on non-cantonment land. To highlight but some aspects of it, tens of thousands of Karachi’s residents lost their homes along the Gujjar and Orangi nullahs and on railway land, while the vibrant Empress Market was reduced to an empty shell in sweeping anti-encroachment drives ordered by the apex court.

Indeed, it is important the Supreme Court is demanding answers in a matter usually skimmed over or mothballed, even though it is intrinsically linked with social justice and the impartial application of the law. But is this enough? The defence secretary informed the court on Friday that the services chiefs had decided not to allow further commercial activities on cantonment land.

As the bench observed, its previous orders in this respect have been repeatedly flouted by senior military personnel “who act like kings”. It is time the apex court demonstrated practically that justice, even in Pakistan, is blind. For its part, the security establishment should engage in some introspection and consider how its standing in the court of public opinion would rise were it to follow land-use laws just as civilians are expected to.

Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2021

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