May Issue 2015

Cover Story

By | News & Politics | Published 5 years ago

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement  (MQM) has its own way of doing politics. Over the years it has added new words and phrases to its political vocabulary. It started with using “Bhai” as a term of endearment for its chief, Altaf Hussain. Other MQM leaders and members, meanwhile, have in some cases been assigned strange nicknames such as “Lamba,” “Kankatta,” “K2” and “Darinda,” among others. And the MQM-coined phraseology is not limited to peoples’ names. Inhouse MQM ‘lingo’ includes words like China-cutting — initially a code word for the illicit business of land grabbing in Karachi — but which has increasingly become part of the MQM’s lexicon, in fact, even of urban parlance.

The term was not entirely new to people in the real estate business, or those who have been affected by such practices, but it garnered mainstream attention when Hussain used it in one of his speeches following the General Elections of May 2013. The term is now frequently used in news reports and court proceedings involving the encroachment of public land and amenity plots.

Last year, Hussain used the term again while expressing his dissatisfaction over the performance of the party’s Coordination Committee, when he alleged that some of the members were involved in making money by selling land and continuing the practice of China-cutting.

So how was the term “China-cutting” coined? It goes back to the cheap products manufactured in China that started to flow into Pakistan in the 1990s.

“In Pakistan, exact copies or duplicate versions of brand-named products from different countries are known as the ‘China version,’” explains Tariq, who has been in the real estate business for over two decades. “Hence ‘Made in China’ came to refer to anything that was fake, low quality or illegal. China-cutting refers to the ‘cutting’ of plots in formal settlements with prices that are relatively low and whose documentation is generally forged.”

During General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf’s era, when the MQM held a significant share in the coalition government in Sindh, some party officials at the highest and also at lower levels used their political clout to grab land on the outskirts of Karachi for new settlements. Since then, they have extended the practice to formal settlements, by grabbing land allocated for various amenity purposes. This practice came to be known as China-cutting.

Generally, the way land-grabbing works is that ‘grabbers’ find a strip of land, divide it into small plots of 80, 120 or 200 square yards and sell it to establish informal settlements or katchi abadis where public utilities such as electricity, gas, water and drainage systems don’t exist yet.

“China-cutting is different because it relates to the acquisition of land in formal settlements, which are already developed, and where basic utilities are available and thus have higher land values than those of katchi abadis,” explains a real-estate agent in Baldia Town.

He says that similar informal settlements have been established in Ittehad Town, Muhammad Khan Colony where the grabbers mafia purchased a piece of land and then illegally seized most of the land on its outskirts, known as goths, and started selling this land to people either for residential or commercial use.

“Formal settlements with proper documentation, public utilities and other facilities are valued much more than those on the outskirts,” explains a builder in North Nazimabad. “But acquiring land for residential or business purposes requires a lengthy documentation and approval process.”

People with political influence, he says, who are usually backed by higher authorities, often prefer to avoid the hassle of buying land through legal processes. For them it’s easier to grab land that is reserved for public utilities or amenity purposes, carve it into small plots and residential units, and then sell it at prices which are below the market value of those that are legally documented. And despite the lack of public utilities, low-income people prefer to purchase plots in katchi abadis simply because they are affordable

But owners of apartments at New Way Apartments, North Nazimabad, have a different story to tell. The building housing these flats was demolished in September last year by the KMC’s anti-encroachment task force on the court’s orders because it was found to be one of several illegal constructions carried out by the land mafia.

According to the property owners, however, they bought the apartments for Rs 1.6 million apiece with the builder, linked to a political party, assuring them that the building was legal.  The builder contends that he had all the documents to prove his claim. But the court found that the building, constructed on 360 square yards of encroached land, was actually allotted for a parking facility for adjacent projects.

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According to an architect and resident of Baldia Town Sector 9, when a formal settlement is built, all the utilities such as electricity, water and drainage systems are provided keeping the number of housing units in mind. But if plots are carved illegally, people buy and occupy the land without taking into account the capacity of the utilities available, and soon the number of people over-burdens the existing infrastructure, which leads to shortages and technical faults.

The Karachi Operation, which has been underway since September 2012, has recently broadened the scope of detentions and arrests from those who are involved in violence and target killings to include those involved in financial crimes such as extortion and land-grabbing.

Last month, Babar Chughtai, the former chairman of the Association of Builders and Developers (ABAD) and Najmuz Zaman, land director of the Karachi Development Authority (KDA), were hauled up and put into three months of preventive detention for their alleged involvement in aiding land-grabbing and China-cutting. Both have allegedly been associated to elements within the MQM .

The MQM has protested the arrest of Babar Chughtai vociferously, calling it an act of reprisal, while the Rangers claim that they have irrefutable evidence of the charges made against him.  But both were released on April 22.

The courts, too, are hearing many cases in which various individuals, organisations and political parties have approached the courts to recover amenity plots from encroachers.

On April 19, while hearing a petition by Rana Faizul Hasan, a civil rights campaigner, the court directed city authorities, the administrator of the revenue department and Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) to confiscate thousands of square yards of amenity land from encroachers and submit their replies to the courts.

In the petition, the court was informed that the land comprising nine amenity plots measuring between 15,000-16,000 square yards, located near Aziz Bhatti Park in Block 10 of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Town, was first used as a parking lot but has now been divided into smaller plots and encroached upon illegally.

In another instance, a resident of Korangi had approached the courts about a local seminary, Darul Uloom Karachi, which had encroached upon a portion of his legally acquired property. However, no verdict has yet been reached.

And while the prime motivation for land-grabbing is unarguably making money, sometimes it has political purposes as well.

In Baldia Town Sector 9A, two amenity plots were distributed by a religious seminary Jamia Ahya Ul Uloom and local MQM workers. The seminary has constructed residential blocks for boys on the plots allocated for a dispensary, and MQM workers have carved out land allocated for a school and sold the plots to party sympathisers.

In Baldia Town, Sector 14B, a road measuring 130 feet wide has been narrowed by 60 feet, due to the land mafia dividing and grabbing the centre portion, carving it into more than 60 plots measuring 80 square yards each and allotting them to party supporters. The truncated road now measures 35 feet on both sides.

People who had legally purchased commercial property worth millions of rupees along the road took the matter to court, which ruled in their favour. However no government authority is willing to take action and rectify matters because of the political nature of the case.

“We hired a lawyer and took the matter to court. We even got a decision in our favour,” an owner of one of the commercial plots told Newsline. “But we were unable to get these encroachments removed due to the involvement of the MQM. None of the government authorities were willing to cooperate. But since the Rangers have started to take action against China-cutting and land grabbing, we are hopeful that the court’s orders will be implemented in our case as well.”

2In Clifton Block-2, an amenity plot St-9 was illegally seized and a club, mosque and seminary were constructed on the land. A non-governmental organisation, Check and Watch Environmental Foundation, approached the court and got an order against the illegal construction. But no action has been taken as yet.

A large number of mosques and seminaries are also built on land acquired illegally. In New Karachi sector (7-D/3) for example, where the city plan allocated land for one or two mosques, 11 mosques were constructed on land allocated for community centres, parks and schools.

According to a district level leader of the PTI, there are several such places where the MQM, with the aim of increasing its vote bank, has accommodated its supporters in illegal establishments within formal settlements in the NA-239 constituency.

“It’s one of those constituencies which the MQM had failed to win since its inception, until the 2013 general elections,” claims the PTI leader. “It was only thanks to massive rigging in the last election that the MQM was able to defeat our candidate, Subhan Ali Sahil.”

But China-cutting alone is not the only facet of land-grabbing. Over the years, Karachi’s 370-kilometre coastline has been plundered by big businesses and other interest groups. Unplanned coastal encroachment and reclamation, waterfront development, land-based pollution discharge and unregulated exploitation of coastal resources has gone on unfetterred and left ignored by the authorities.

This includes 3,000 acres of illegally-reclaimed coastal land opposite Bilawal House that is allegedy earmarked for luxury high rises worth millions of rupees.

In 2003, the Sindh High Court upheld the KDA (Sindh Amendment) Act 1994 declaring that “no amenity shall be converted or utilised for any other purpose.” The order further stated that the 1994 KDA (Amendment) Act forbade the conversion of an amenity plot, even by special permission or by altering the zonal plan.

As a result, the PPP and MQM — both heavily engaged in the practice — joined hands to provide cover to existing encroachments through a Sindh Assembly bill, titled ‘The Sindh Protection and Prohibition of Amenity Plots Bill,’ on two occasions, first in 2009 and then in 2011. The bill proposed the conversion of amenity plots for other purposes through a Sindh Assembly resolution and had an overriding and retroactive effect against all the existing laws and rulings from the court since May 3, 1994.

But due to severe criticism from other political parties and civic rights organisations, the bill was not passed.
However, the Sindh government has not relented and has brought new legislation to serve its purposes. The Sindh Special Development Board (SSDB) has been constituted to override other institutions and grant lands of katchi abadis to builders.

The Urban Resource Center has, in its periodical, lashed out at the government move and Professor Arif Belgaumi of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture says, “This is a classic trinity of free market economics, privatisation, deregulation and cuts to social spending. The state only acts as a facilitating agent.”

Interestingly, against this backdrop, the PPP’s Sharjeel Memon, Sindh Minister for Local Government, has started an anti-encroachment drive in the city, vowing to get amenity plots cleared of illegal occupations in the form of marriage lawns and other construction.

Memon claims that more than 50 marriage lawns built on amenity plots have been demolished so far and this drive will continue. He rejects all allegations that the action is directed against a particular group. Some people have suggested that it might, in fact, be a tactic to pressurise the MQM into joining the cabinet once again.

“When the PPP-MQM-ANP coalition government was formed after the 2008 elections, both major partners sporadically used these amenity plots as bargaining chips during core committee meetings, which had been called after an outburst of violence in the city or following the MQM’s decision to rejoin the cabinet after an earlier announcement to quit the government,” says a source close to the PPP. “Most of the negotiations revolved around the distribution of parking lots and amenity plots in different localities, while lower ranks from both sides fought each other for possession.”

This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order