November issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

“It is not possible to grab public land without the connivance
and active collusion of government agencies”
– Shehri

Q: What is the difference between land-grabbing and encroachment? And in which areas is land-grabbing taking place?

A: Land-grabbing is of two kinds:

1. Extending your own property boundary or encroaching upon public property as an extension of your property.
2. The second kind of land-grabbing is when large tracts of (generally) public land are unlawfully taken over by powerful interests.

Land-grabbing also entails the taking over of amenity spaces all over Karachi, i.e. land meant for parks, hospitals, playgrounds, etc., that is taken over by criminals.

Q: Who is involved in land-grabbing? Is it official or unofficial?

A: Private entities (and people) and vested groups are both doing it. And in both kinds of land-grabbing, official patronage is involved.

The TMA (Town Municipal Administration) of that particular union council, the Anti-Encroachment Cell of CDGK, the parks department, various government landowners (e.g. BOR, KPT, cantonments, etc), and the police are all involved through acts of commission or omission. It is not possible for anyone to grab even a square inch of public land without the connivance and active collusion of the government agencies who are supposed to protect that land.

Q: Are mafias and political parties involved too? Have you been able to identify them?

A: Yes, mafias are involved and these mafias seek the help of whosoever is powerful in the city and province — which of course includes political parties. We know who they are and so does everyone in the corridors of power.

Q: Has this been documented?

A: Yes. All government departments and other civil society groups, people living in the area and neighbours regularly report land-grabbing through complaint letters, court litigation, press reports and surveys. Shehri’s own personal survey — which has been going on for the last 15 years — has documented land-grab in 18 towns and other cantonment areas of Karachi, aided by satellite imagery and foot survey.  The results show that land-grabbing of both kinds is taking place on a very large scale.

Q: What legal recourse has been taken?

A: None by successive governments — they have paid only lip service. Shehri and different citizens have been involved in public interest litigation a number of times.

Q: Have you met with any success?

A: Gutter Baghicha is still an open space of about 480 acres, with the exception of the 50 acres grabbed in June 2009 by members of a political party. We have managed to save (so far) a number of amenity spaces including Kidney Hill, 11 KTC plots in Karachi, 15 SRTC plots in Sindh, Bagh-e-Ibn-e-Qasim (case of Costa Livina), Doongi Ground in Lahore, Glass Towers and the New Murree Project.

We have had many minor and major victories due to our involvement with people around Karachi in helping them with litigation and assisting them. We have a help desk that provides people with assistance and guidance. We are still around after 20 years and people come to us for help — and our success is this.

Q: What are the challenges in pursuing cases such as Gutter Baghicha and others?

A: The ultimate challenge in pursuing such matters is death! Our colleague and member, Nisar Baloch, was gunned down and murdered on November 7, 2009, when he was trying to stop the Gutter Baghicha municipal park land-grab. The lesser challenges are threats and intimidation e.g. in the Kidney Hill case Shehri members and their children were threatened. Earlier, some of our members were accused of being agents of Israel and threatened with a “right to kill” fatwa

paid for by criminal builders.

Q: Who are the relevant authorities that deal with the issue of land-grab? Why are they ineffective?

A: The relevant authorities that deal with the issue of land-grabbing are the landowners of that particular piece of land. They themselves are either complacent or involved with the land-grabbers i.e. BOR, CDGK (Revenue Department), KPT, Port Qasim Authority, Cantonments and other landowners.

The City Council has, in the past, sanctioned the takeover of amenity land to benefit party workers (e.g. Sewage Treatment Plant-2 in Mehmoodabad). Provincial assembly members have also tried to take over amenity land. Around 150 acres near Pakistan Refinery Limited, which

was initially earmarked for the establishment of the Greater Karachi Sewerage Treatment Plant S-III, was allotted to Ghaggar Cooperative Housing Society, whose members are mostly provincial lawmakers. Later, due to public pressure, this illegal allotment was withdrawn.

Q: What bearing does encroachment and land-grabbing have on the political situation of the city and how does it change the demographics?

A: The political situation in Karachi vis-a-vis land-grabbing has become a tool for all political parties to get free public land, divide it into small plots of 80-100sq yards and give it to their party workers, who then settle there by building small houses for themselves and their families. The demographics (and vote banks) of the area are thus changed. Each house will approximately generate seven new voters officially and come election time — local, provincial or federal — the electoral result of that area will change. This is an innovative idea developed by political parties which also generates income for them.

The effects of land-grab will be reflected in the next local bodies elections and the votes cast for each political party; this will show the impact.

Q: How do you view the changing landscape of Karachi? Has it raised the political temperatures in the city?

A: In Shehri’s opinion, land-grab changes the dynamics of the area and the city. In areas like SITE Town, Mehmoodabad, North Nazimabad, Baldia, Gaddap, Lyari, Scheme-42, Korangi, Landhi, Surjani, etc., land-grabbing has resulted in ghettos inhabited by particular ethnic groups who are constantly up in arms against one another, consequently resulting in an increase in crime and other social issues which contribute towards making Karachi an ungovernable city. So land-grabbing has surely raised the political temperature in Karachi.

Land-grab in the settled areas of Karachi is limited but is rising steadily due to political patronage. The most recent example of an ongoing case is on Tipu Sultan Road, SNPA 23, 4,000sq yards of KCHS Union land where a marriage hall is under construction despite a court case clearing stating that the land is for amenity use only.

China ground on Kashmir Ground is another example of misuse and encroachment of public property, as is Saima Bridge View apartment complex, built on the car parking space of North Nazimabad Circular Railway station. There are very few parks and open spaces now left to encroach. The areas in the city where there are still open spaces (that can be encroached) are Scheme-42 (Keamari Town), Gutter Baghicha (SITE town), Scheme-33 Gulistan-e-Jauhar, Baldia and Gaddap town, all still empty and vulnerable.

Amenity spaces in Mehran Town (Korangi), and open spaces in Landhi and Orangi are all electoral prizes that political parties are killing each other for. This is why there is a surge in target killings — it is essentially a turf war between different political parties and gangs.

The city needs to be turned into a weapon-free zone.

Q: Would you say that the ghettotisation of ethnic communities is a consequence of land-grabbing?

A: Partly yes; however, it is also a consequence of xenophobia, which nationalist and religious parties, and other mafias propagate to justify their existence and politics.

Q: Can one fight this ghettotisation to prevent Karachi from division along ethnic lines?

A: It may be too late. The only way it can change is to capture the minds of young people by making them aware of their identity as Pakistanis and Pakistanis only. The rest of people in the city are fed up but are also becoming very ethnically and religiously prejudiced against one another, no matter how educated they may be.

Q: How do you view the migrant situation, the resultant population increase and the pressure this exerts on the infrastructure?

A: Karachi has always had a migrant population which is cyclical and of a semi-permanent nature. The city attracts people from the rest of the country for job opportunities. There is a chronic housing problem, no government has clearly ever planned for this. Citizens have had to find housing for themselves, which has resulted in the emergence of katchi abadis and also the densification of existing developed areas.

In the under-developed towns like Baldia, Gaddap, Surjani Town, where infrastructure is limited, the pressure of these migrants impacts the general environment. However, in places like Landhi,  Korangi, Gutter Baghicha, North Nazimabad, Mehran Town, these are settled areas where parks have been grabbed and carved out into 80-yard plots and sold or given to party favourites and small industries. The latter has a more adverse impact on existing infrastructure.

Q: Ideally, what should be the policy for land use?

A: Ideally the policy for land use should be the master plan, which should be notified and implemented. Additionally, there should be no regularistion of deviations.

Q: How has the land use in Karachi affected the economics?

A: A great deal of damage has been done. Why would an honest investor put money in land when it can easily be encroached upon? These land mafia criminals are also often involved in extortion, kidnappings, target killings and other heinous crimes. Builders who do invest are those who have links with the criminal/ethnic/religious mafias — the most perverted form of crony capitalism possible.

Why would a law-abiding investor jump in this cesspool?

Q: Have the changing governments impacted land use or contributed to land abuse?

A: Changing governments have impacted land use by continuously allowing the law to be violated; introducing laws which change land use and by implementing policies which destroy the environment e.g. “Change of Land Use and Master Planning Bye Laws — 2003,” Regulation

Policy “The Sindh Regulation and Control (use of plots and construction of buildings) Ordinance, 2002.” No government, whether local or provincial, has undertaken the task of stopping land abuse. As a matter of fact, they have only indulged in what we call “institutionalised corruption.”

Q: In whose tenure has land-grabbing been at its worst?

A: Land-grabbing by individuals has always taken place in Karachi under the patronage of politicians or individuals in regulatory departments etc. But since the last 15 years, land-grabbing has taken the shape of a campaign launched by political parties to increase their electoral mandate and enhance their financial positions. They do this by giving patronage and providing institutional help and assistance to land-grabbers who, in return, give that particular party large sums of money.

Q: How can the issue of land-grab be resolved in Karachi and who should be resolving it?

A: We doubt that this issue can be resolved, because there is no rule of law and all the political parties know exactly what they and other political parties are doing. Land-grabbing is organised loot at different levels. Karachi will continue to burn and become more chaotic by the day as there is too much profit and power involved in it.

There really is no possible solution except enforcing the rule of law and exercising a policy of zero-tolerance towards the change of land use, land-grabbing and land-grabbers. Utility companies (electricity, water, gas) should be stopped from providing connections to any kind of construction on parks and public spaces, whether it be for housing, mosques, madrassas, political parties offices, etc — anything that has not been notified for that particular use or been paid for.

Shehri is a non-political organisation which acts as a pressure group against illegal encroachments and land-grabbing, and addresses other civic problems.

This interview accompanied the November 2010 cover story, Karachi’s Mean Streets.

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.