ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Wednesday expressed shock over “flagrant violations” of the law committed in the acquisition of a huge chunk of agricultural land for a cooperative housing society in Rawalpindi, almost two decades ago.

What irked the court the most was that the entire process of the merger of land acquired to develop residential facilities for members of the Revenue Employees Cooperative Housing Ltd (RECHS) was replete with flagrant violations of existing laws.

The RECHS acquired over 2,830 kanals of land in 2005, but later transferred it to Bahria Town Ltd (BTL), which in turn, transferred the land to the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) in 2007 for the development of Askari 14 Rawalpindi.

To top it all, this was done despite a written statement by then-Punjab cooperatives minister Malik Mohammad Anwar, who opposed the transaction. But he was overruled by former chief minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi.

Agricultural land was first transferred by housing society to Bahria Town, who then turned it over to DHA

Headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Qazi Faez Isa, a three-judge Supreme Court bench had taken up complaints moved by a number of people who were deprived of plots despite making payments.

The court wondered how agricultural land can be utilised for residential or commercial purposes. It was difficult to understand the tradeoff, CJP Isa said, directing BTL and DHA to furnish concise statements explaining the conversion of agricultural land for housing/commercial purposes. They were also asked to submit the site plan and a Google Map as well.

The court was informed that an agreement was entered into between Bahria Town and retired colonel Abdullah Siddiq, the administrator of RECHS, on Feb 17, 2005, under which the society’s land was transferred to Bahria Town. The BTL, in turn, transferred it to DHA through an agreement in 2007.

The nature of such “purported agreement leaves much to be desired”, the CJP regretted.

Punjab Advocate General Khalid Ishaq conceded that since the tenure of the RECHS administrator had expired, he was not authorised to enter into an agreement. He further said then chief minister of Punjab did not have the authority to overrule his minister who had opposed the transfer of land. “Nonetheless it went through,” the court lamented.

Even the agreement between Bah­ria Town and RECHS was on the letterhead of the Bahria Town. Fur­thermore, the agreement was executed before expiry of the five-year period for members of the society.

Advocate Hassan Raza Pasha, representing the Bahria Town, assured the court that efforts would be made to resolve grievances of the affected petitioners.

‘Powerful builders’

The CJP regretted that if one travels to another city by road anywhere in the country, he would find a network of societies spreading all over the place. This means that agricultural lands were not considered as valuable as residential and commercial ones.

“It’s the job of the state to ensure food security and it should resist conversion of agriculture lands for commercial purposes. It seems everybody wants to make a housing society to enrich himself,” Chief Justice Isa observed. There must be some checks and oversight, the CJP stressed, adding that conversion of all lands into housing societies by builders would make residential plots unaffordable for the majority.

“These are policy matters which the government needs to think about, but if the government doesn’t do so, the court will ensure the government realises it’s time to start thinking about such matters,” the CJP said.

The voice of powerful builders, and not that of common citizens, is being heard in the corridors of power, CJP Isa said.

“We must keep in mind the future also,” the CJP emphasised, recalling there was a time when Pakistan used to export wheat but now it was importing the same commodity.

The court said it did not want to involve itself in governance issues, but it was for the government to realise its responsibilities.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2024

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