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Turf wars: One man’s land

January 13, 2013

Gulistan-i-Jauhar, a relatively new area in Karachi, comprises a concrete jungle of high rise apartments and housing schemes. – Photo by Faysal Mujeeb / White Star
Gulistan-i-Jauhar, a relatively new area in Karachi, comprises a concrete jungle of high rise apartments and housing schemes. – Photo by Faysal Mujeeb / White Star

Sibghatullah, 71, visits the land department of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) every day. He always carries a file which contains documents concerning a plot he had bought in a residential project in Karachi Development Authority’s (KDA) Scheme 33 nearly two decades ago. Full payment was made and documents processed but he never got the physical possession of the plot because it was encroached upon.

“I have spent my entire life savings to buy a piece of land for constructing my own house,” says the septuagenarian, who was a Grade-18 government officer at the time of his retirement. “I booked a 400-square-yard plot and after paying all instalments, received this file but not the plot. Some influential person with the active support of a political party encroached upon the entire piece of land, including my plot, and since then I have been running from pillar to post to have my plot vacated.”

The grabbing of land by forcible occupation or by forging documents in connivance with government officials is nothing new in Karachi. A bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan conducting hearings about the implementation of the apex court’s earlier directive in the Karachi violence case has termed the ‘menace of land grabbing’ one of the basic causes for the poor law and order situation in the city.

In a severe economic slowdown, illegal property dealing has become a lucrative business in the commercial capital of the country. While the victims are common citizens, retired employees of public and private sectors, widows, etc., the benefits of this lucrative business are shared equally by law-enforcement officials, local leaders, workers of political and religious parties and unscrupulous land buyers. “You cannot occupy even an inch of government or private land in any locality of the city without police protection and patronage of the dominant political or religious party of the area,” says a property dealer. “They pay heavy bribes to government officials for changing the title of the grabbed land in official records. It is a vicious and untouchable alliance.”

Referring to some big names in the construction industry, a property dealer who spoke on condition of anonymity revealed that they have built several famous residential and commercial projects on encroached government land in Gulistan-i-Jauhar, Sachal, Gulzar-i-Hijri, Malir and other areas.

“Almost all of Surjani Town has been encroached upon. Leased plots owned by common citizens have been grabbed and sold to others,” says the dealer. “The original allottees only possess files, being fully aware that their plots have been sold off to others over and over again with fake documentation. But qabza sacha daawa jhoota (occupation is right, the claim is wrong) is what they say. Any victim will tell you that presently, three major ruling parties are involved in illegal land occupation.”

He says corruption is rampant in government departments and one can forge documents of any plot falling within the territorial jurisdiction of KMC, the defunct KDA, the Malir Development Authority, the Lyari Development Authority, Pakistan Railways, etc., with the exception of Defence Housing Authority (DHA).”

While the land mafia uses various tactics to gobble up valuable land by establishing a fake goth or a kachi abadi, they also approach courts of law with forged documents after greasing the palms of government officials. It takes a few years to settle a property-related case which works in favour of the land mafia, although an out-of-court settlement is much preferred.

The chairman of the Association of Builders and Developers (Abad), M. Anwar Gagai, says that the land mafia in Karachi is very powerful. “In many cases our members had to pay the grabbers to get back the possession of their land.”

However, he vehemently denied that his association protects builders who work hand in glove with the land mafia, insisting that builders are also victimised by land grabbers. “We refuse membership to these black sheep of the construction business who have a certain influence in government departments.”

Gagai holds common citizens responsible to some extent for illegal land activity, “After all, people do purchase property from the land mafia at a lower price. Don’t they figure out why someone would give them a piece of land at a price lower than the market rate?”

Despite tall claims by the government and the Sindh Public Property (Removal of Encroachment) Act, 2011, it is believed that the land mafia operates under the patronage of the leaders of the parties in the ruling coalition.

Perhaps this reality has dawned on Sibghatullah, who is now convinced that no one can take a stand before the godfathers of land mafia and his dream of building a home may never come true.