December Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

Owners of the residential and commercial properties at Moon Garden Apartments are mired in a dispute involving the ownership of two acres of land on which multi-storey buildings of the housing project are constructed. Comprising five blocks, so far only three of them have been completed while the rest are still unfinished.

The matter came to a head when the Sindh High Court ordered the evacuation of the buildings in response to a petition filed by the Pakistan Railways Employees Cooperative Housing Society (PRECHS) in 2008. It had been submitted by them that the land actually belonged to the Railways and had been acquired by a builder, Abdul Razzak Khamosh, in an underhand manner.

It is interesting that it took the PRECH 10 years to press its claim on the project, long after people took possession of their flats and shops. During the intervening period of 1998-2008, the builders were able to construct three blocks and collect millions in sales. It is alleged that they were able to continue with the construction by making payments to government officials even after the case was initiated, and those who bought flats were unaware of the legal proceedings.

One of the allottees says, “In the 15 years since I booked an apartment at Moon Garden, I never heard of any legal issue. Every time we complained about the slow pace of construction work, we were told that projects like these have to go through a lot of formalities and approvals from various departments.” The allottee added, “We were relieved to learn that the project fell under the jurisdiction of the Faisal Cantonment Board and that they would take care of any formalities.”

The builders, Abdul Razzak Khamosh Associates, who are members of the Association of Builders and Developers (ABAD), have a chequered past. Before Moon Garden Apartments, the company had worked on another project located opposite Star Gate near the airport. That project too was the subject of dispute and some of the people who were unable to get their apartments and shops were offered Moon Garden as an alternative and asked to pay the difference in price. They have been paying their instalments but are still waiting to take possession of their property.

Those affected by the Moon Garden fiasco took to the streets and protested against court orders that ordered some of the flats to be sealed and their electricity and gas supply disconnected. After that, they registered an FIR against the builders, accusing them of fraud and deception.

The Supreme Court has ordered government officials to stop evicting residents while it considers the case and the builders have assured the court that they will follow its orders and pay penalties if they are found guilty of any irregularities in the procurement of the land and the process of getting approval from the cantonment board and building authorities.

The Sindh government originally claimed ownership over the land,  but Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique then stepped in and clarified that the land was owned by Pakistan Railways and had been given to the PRECH on a 99-year lease in 1988.

The issue has been a point of contention in both the media and among political parties contesting the local government elections. The PTI issued a statement condemning the corruption of government officials while Nasir Hussain Shah, the PPP’s provincial minister for local bodies, and the MQM’s Waseem Akhtar both separately met with the protestors and offered them legal support. But land has always been a dominant issue in the politics of Karachi and there are few political players who remain untainted by it.

The management of cooperative housing societies also face pressure and intimidation from government officials and political parties. They are forced to favour certain individuals and turn a blind eye to illegal building practices such as using residential plots for commercial purposes.

As an example, on November 16, the Sindh High Court directed the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA) to take action against Maya Marriage Hall, which had been constructed illegally on the residential plots of the Darussalam Cooperative Housing Society in Korangi.

Moon tower protestors

Evicted residents protesting outside the building.

These kinds of irregularities are often used by government officials to supersede the elected managing bodies of cooperative housing societies under the guise of protecting the interests of residents. The Sindh Cooperative Housing Authority (SCHA) was established for the express purpose of regulating and supervising housing societies that have been accused of irregularities. On its website, the SCHA states that 11 such housing societies are supervised by them but sources suggest the number is closer to 20.

While it is true that housing societies routinely bend and break the law, the SCHA’s hands are far from clean. Officials take over authority from the societies in order to benefit themselves more than the residents they are putatively protecting.

A member of a cooperative housing society narrated an incident of a time when he got a text message from an official of the SCHA asking for a brand new Suzuki Swift car for his daughter’s birthday. After he refused, an enquiry was initiated against the managing body of the society for embezzling funds and not conducting elections, even though a member of the managing body had got a stay order from the courts to delay the elections.

Housing societies taken over by the authority do not suddenly become bastions of transparency and accountability. Grade 18 government employees are appointed as administrators and they tend to take full advantage of their exalted position. In August, two former administrators of Quetta Town housing societies, Akhtar Pathan and Altaf Memon, were imprisoned for corruption.

A journalist with an Urdu daily said there is a race among government officials to be appointed as administrators of cooperative housing societies that have been taken over by the SCHA. He alleged that bribes of up to two million rupees are paid to leaders of the ruling party to secure such an appointment. A resident of a housing society says, “Once a government official has got himself appointed, he has to recoup the bribe money. He starts by asking the residents of the society to get their documents verified for a fee of Rs. 5,000-10,000 and then charges for various tasks such as issuing NOCs, completing land transfers and fixing basic amenities like sewage.

All cooperative housing societies have to get their accounts audited by the SCHA, which means the officials know exactly how wealthy each of them is. And so the race begins to secure control of the most prosperous housing societies with scarcely a thought given to the poor residents who are continually scammed.

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

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