January issue 2017
Masters of the Soil
After self-exile of 18 months, former Pakistan President, and co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Asif Ali Zardari, flew into Karachi in a private jet owned by the Bahria Town Foundation. The group is currently building the largest housing project in Karachi, even as it remains embroiled in judicial battles thrown up by its questionable acquisition of lands.
Zardari’s choice of carrier is not surprising. The PPP leadership’s links with Riaz Malik, the founder of the Bahria Town Foundation, are as well known as is the tycoon’s ability to forge bonds with the most powerful men in the land. But Malik is not the only one to use political clout to acquire power, pelf and property. Former Sindh information minister, Sharjeel Inam Memon, and Owais Muzaffar Tappi, a Zardari relative and front-man, are also known to have used political influence and the province’s administrative authorities to illegally acquire thousands of acres of land inhabited by indigenous Sindhis and Baloch, or owned by the provincial government. This information has been brought to public knowledge by the Karachi Indigenous Rights Alliance (KIRA), started by journalists and social activists in Karachi.
Gul Hasan Kalamati, a historian, social activist, and founder member of KIRA terms the Bahria enterprise a ‘fraud,’ and compares it to the British colonisers and their East India Company.
In a conference titled ‘Snatching from the needy to give to the greedy,’ at the Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences, Karachi, in April, on the subject of Bahria Town and the Okara Military farms, Kalamati stressed on the need to understand the role of real estate tycoons, builders and construction companies, and condemned them and the government for the atrocities committed by them through the dispossession of people from their centuries-old ownership of lands and livelihoods.
KIRA has been warning the people of Karachi that water and electricity projects earmarked for Karachi are being redirected to gated communities like the under-construction Bahria Town, and DHA City. Kalamati says that people living in these elite housing projects won’t suffer from the shortage of public utilities, but the situation in Karachi will become even more untenable. Meanwhile, as with the expansion of real estate projects, the lands on the outskirts of Karachi evolve into goldmines, the forced evictions through the use of administrative powers, of the residents of those areas — the goths in Malir Town and Gadap Town — leave them penurious and homeless.
And while groups like the Bahria Town Foundation might have led the process, other groups of builders and developers have joined the ‘bulldoze and build’ drive, and the concerned officials provide their services to whoever is the highest bidder.
A case in point: Allah Rakio Burfat Goth, near Gulzar Hijri in Malir, was regularised under the Sindh Goth Abad (Housing Scheme) Act 1987 in 1995-96, and people were given certificates of ownership by the then provincial government of the PPP. But in a recent anti-encroachment drive, purportedly to remove illegal occupations in the Aligarh Old Boys Cooperative Housing Society, a goth housing around 25 thousand inhabitants, most of them from the Sindhi-speaking Burfat clan, was demolished. At whose behest and to what end the action was taken, remains suspect.
Irshad Begum, a social activist presiding over a registered community organisation, the ‘All Saya Social Welfare Association,’ was running a school in the area with more than 300 students enrolled. “Nothing is left now except for the rubble of that school and our destroyed homes,” she laments with tearful eyes.
Irshad Begum maintains, “The lands of our village had no connection with the encroached lands of the Aligarh Old Boys Cooperative Housing Society. They were ours for generations. But the authorities used a court order they had got to reclaim the occupied lands of the said housing project, to illegally demolish our goth as well. Now they will sell it to builders and make big money from the transaction.”
She continues, “It was in the first week of May when the builders came with police escorts, led by the SSP Malir Rao Anwar, and asked us to remove our valuables from our houses. Then all of a sudden, they started the demolition of our homes — and our lives. People who offered resistance were beaten, and indiscriminate fire was opened on them. Injured boys, less than 15 years old, were taken into custody. They were transported to Abbasi Shaheed Hospital. When we went there to see our children, we were aghast: they were chained to their hospital beds.”
The irony of the situation is that the residents of the Allah Rakio Burfat Goth actually have documents of possession and certificates of ownership of the goth from the Sindh government. They have approached the courts for redress of their grievances, and elderly politician, Rasool Baksh Palejo, has vowed to plead their case, but their ordeal is not over. Clearly, they will have to wait for justice — if it is ever forthcoming.
In another case, the residents of the goth Gulab Bheel located in Gadap town, District Malir, 40 kilometres from the centre of the city, are confronting a double whammy: gross negligence by the authorities and religious discrimination. For more than 40 years, 108 Hindu families belonging to the Bheel and Jogi castes have been living in goth Gulab Bhee. With a population of about 2,000 people, this village is part of Karachi, but its residents have never been provided even basic facilities such as electricity, water or education. All these facilities are available nearby, but they have no access to them.
Ghulab Bheel, a 55-year-old resident of the goth, recalls the time he arrived there 40 years ago. “I migrated here with my family from district Sanghar, expecting a better life for my family since we were locating near the city, which promised not just basic utilities, but also economic opportunities.”
But he learnt that was wishful thinking. Discrimination due to their caste and religion deprived them from acceptance in the larger community, basic utilities, and even education for their children: they were not allowed to send their children to the nearby school. To add to their woes, influential land grabbers continuously pressurised them to vacate their houses, despite long-standing court orders for the allocation of these lands to the villagers on a 99-year lease.
Sahiba Bai, another resident of the goth, disclosed that the governmental water supply in the adjacent area is also not accessible to them. “We are not allowed to fetch water from there. If we try to do so, the people living there hurl abuses at us and threaten us,” she says. The dire condition of the community can perhaps be gauged by the state of insecurity they are forced to live in. Four years ago, a 15-year-old niece of Sahiba’s was abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married to a man from this area. “This has contributed to the fear that is now omnipresent,” says Sahiba.
Sixty-year-old Rano Bheel adds that in addition to their other tribulations, most of the residents of the goth have faced difficulties in obtaining identity cards. This deprives them of even their basic rights, as they have to contend with issues while travelling, lack political representation and hence, face indifference from political parties, and also have no access to any financial aid from the government.
Karachi, a city once dominated by traders, businessmen, and artisans from the Hindu community, has gone through major demographic changes through the last seven decades, with waves of migrations to the city. Once known as ‘Mother Karachi,’ with the passage of time, and in recent years, owing to political turmoil, and the indifference of political parties — even of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has always claimed to be the party of the downtrodden — Karachi has become completely unwelcoming for the people who call it home, including the indigenous people who have lived there for centuries. Judging by the actions of PPP stalwarts, allegedly at the behest of higher powers, it seems the party leadership has also started looking at the city as a goldmine, which they are now eagerly cashing in on.
Against this backdrop it is becoming increasingly evident that the city and its political leadership now belong to the likes of those who own and operate foundations like Bahria, not to the millions of its sons of the soil living in squalor outside the ivory towers of the rich and the powerful.
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order