Let’s start by making a sweeping statement: u nstoppable increase in population and unfettered growth of real estate business are in a process of destroying Punjab as the granary of the region. The former does it unconsciously and out of ignorance born of poverty and ideology. The latter does so consciously and out of greed born of a class system premised on possession as the human ideal. Both are interconnected. Things have come to such a pass that we have no sufficient food, clothes, medicines and schools for the children we are blessed with at the moment. One of the major reasons apart from structural problems, misgovernment and rampant corruption, is their number. They are so many. And what can one do with so many except simply ignore them? Now so many are so many that we have to import wheat, our staple, for our daily bread. We cannot even produce enough vegetables. Onion and tomato, the essential ingredients of our cooked food, too have to be bought from foreign markets.

West Punjab especially after the introduction of a massive and intricate canal network in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by the colonial administration has been sufficient in food. The areas touched by canal irrigation were called canal colonies which showcased a massive socio-economic transformation. “This part of Punjab did not benefit, as did the eastern parts of the province, from the monsoonal rains of sufficient strength to support settled agriculture. Cultivated lands, as a result, were confined to areas accessible to irrigation, which was derived either from groundwater sources through wells or from seasonal canals utilizing river water. The laying out of an extensive network of canals based on perennial irrigation, with water drawn from the rivers through permanent weirs and headworks, has in the past century transformed this region from desert waste or at least pastoral savannah, to one of the major centres of commercialized agriculture in South Asia,” writes Dr Imran Ali in his account of this historical development in his book’s Punjab under Imperialism.

The commercialized agriculture mentioned above is fast crumbling under the weight of numbers; the division of hereditary land into smaller parcels has made the cultivation unprofitable. Secondly, it fails to meet the expanding needs of the population dependent on it that grows at lightning speed. Thirdly, fertile lands surrounding metropolises, cities and towns are being taken over by real estate tycoons with the help of market forces and government backing. All else is failing in Punjab. The only business that’s thriving is real estate with trillions invested in it. And it does so at the expense of other productive businesses and industries plutocracy ensconced in power is its patron and shareholder. It’s the fastest way to make quick money. The modus operandi is deviously simple. A tempting offer is made to the owners for their lands which is invariably accepted because the deliberate destruction of agriculture caused by an unholy alliance between estate developers and state officials backed by politicians has made farming quite an unattractive proposition. If and when landowners prove to be adamant that they would not part with their holdings, mandarins and minions step in with the skewed laws that empower them to acquire the lands for the so-called public good. What is good for oligarchs is good for officials. Both act for each other. The declared social goal of such a business is just a fig leaf, and the real intent is to make money as much as possible, and as quickly as possible. This is betrayed by the fact that agricultural lands close to urban areas are bought relatively cheap but when developed, they are sold at exorbitant prices which makes it not only beyond the reach of the working class but also that of the middle class. The business creates a negligible number of jobs and keeps capital trapped in non-productive ventures.

What is worst is its obsession with horizontal urban expansion. Some centuries back shops were eating the sheep in England but here housing colonies and shopping plazas are devouring the fields. Population explosion and shrinking acreage of fertile land is a lethal mix that is going to have multiple ramifications for society and nature. One, it is destroying our delicate ecosystems adding to the environmental degradation as it eliminates the biodiversity and green patches found in and around our settlements. Thus it becomes an unending source of eco-anxiety. Two, it threatens the very thing our society direly needs; fertile land to produce food to feed the ever-increasing number of mouths. Three, Instead of solving the housing problem it compounds it as it makes residential plots and built houses meant for sale unaffordable for an overwhelming majority of people. It happily increases the gap between social classes by making the rich richer and the poor poorer by creating separate residential areas for them. Four, it makes the vulnerable more vulnerable by increasing the number of the former. Thus it helps strengthen the extractive system that thrives on exploitation. Five, it discourages social interaction. The typical architectural design of a so-called modern housing society is such that it violates the traditional division of space in urban settlements. It hardly provides sharable common spaces meant to support community activities. One can’t find sports grounds, public libraries and public squares in new residential areas that flaunt modernity. Six, an increased population mainly comprising the have-not with no prospects creates social chaos that rarely allows the projects designed to improve the situation to be on the boil.

In short, an exponentially increased population feeds the real estate business. Property sharks find the increased population not only appetizing but also nourishing. A greater number means more buyers. Property sharks keep the population filled with excited anticipation. They continue to dangle the dream of owning a house ahead of them. If such a devastating practice is allowed to continue, we shall have posterity with stones as their food. “…But at evening I looked up and saw them sitting on the wall eating / And what they were eating was stone/ And I saw they had cleverly learned to eat a new kind of food just in time,” says Bertolt Brecht. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 16th, 2023

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