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Behind the times: Property laws

March 22, 2013

WHAT remains of the Margalla Towers, which partially collapsed during the 2005 earthquake, has been a grim feature of Islamabad’s landscape for years. As court battles continued over the fixing of blame, Islamabad’s residents became accustomed to the ruin looming over one of the main residential arteries. But compensation issues having largely been settled some time ago, on Wednesday the process of demolishing the building was finally initiated by a private firm that has purchased the site and been granted permission by the Capital Development Authority. Soon, evidence of perhaps the worst such episode seen in the capital will have been erased from sight.

In the case of Margalla Towers, apartment owners were paid compensation because of suspicions that the structure had been improperly constructed. But the case should be taken as a wake-up call for the manner in which the country’s legislation on property has not kept up with changing urban development patterns and lifestyle choices. Though apartment buildings are now a decades-old feature of our cities, Karachi in particular, the laws and by-laws that apply in case of disputes or disasters are scattered and piecemeal, and out of touch with new realities. Simply put, the owner of a house damaged or destroyed by an occurrence for which the state or builder cannot be held responsible — a natural disaster, terrorism or a riot, for example — and where, therefore, a civil suit for damages does not apply, still has the land as an asset. But apartment owners of a compromised building do not have that. Even the eventual sale of the plot and division of funds — which would require full agreement of all owners, a difficult task to achieve — would be a fraction of the value of the asset lost. In a country where violence is a daily reality and its effect on infrastructure inevitable in several cases, these gaps in property legislation need to be urgently addressed. Further, home insurance needs to be popularised and made more accessible.