September Issue 2007
The Ground Beneath Their Feet
Investment in urban real estate has been a lucrative business of the Pakistan military for decades. Exercising its influence and power, the military has increased its stake in the construction and development sector by converting agricultural land into housing projects. The most well-known way in which the military does this is through the Defence Housing Authority (DHA). Under this banner, the military has set up housing authorities in every big city of the country, making it one of Pakistan’s largest land owners. The recent allotment of 12,093 acres to the DHA on the Super Highway adjacent to the Karachi toll plaza is the biggest-ever housing project of the DHA on agriculture land. But the issue involves more than taking good agricultural land and turning it into concrete and asphalt subdivisions. The development will snatch the livelihood from hundreds of villagers — villagers with 600-year-old links to the land.
It has been reported that the initial decision to lease out 12,093 acres of land to establish Defence Housing Authority-II (DHA-II) in Karachi was taken by the then governor Mohammadmian Soomro in 1999 after being approached by the DHA. The Sindh cabinet eventually approved the summary of the allotment of land sometime in 2000 or 2001. But it was quickly questioned from within the government. On receiving directions to hand over the land, the land utilisation department sent the summary to the chief minister of Sindh with the observations that the price was very low. This delayed delivery to the DHA — but only temporarily.
The decision was formalised by the government of Sindh in 2004. S. Mehdi Ali Shah, the deputy secretary (Land Utilization-1) for the board of revenue with the government of Sindh, sent a letter to the secretary of the DHA on November 24, 2004, stating, “I am directed to state that the cabinet has agreed to lease out an area of 12,093 acres situated at Deh Khadeji and Abdaar at the rate of Rs.100,000 per acre for housing purposes. The total cost of the above land comes to 1,20,93,00,000 [1.2 billion rupees].” In pursuance of possession of the land, the DHA, as per requirement, paid the down payment of Rs.582,013,250 to the Sindh government.
The agricultural land allotted to the DHA is situated in Deh Abdaar and Deh Khadeji of Gadap Town. The residents of the areas came to know about the sale of the land when the provincial government issued a notice on May 14, 2005, through the Mukhtiarkar of Gadap Town to the residents, stating that the demarcation of the boundaries of the large parcel of land leased to the DHA was going to be held. Therefore, villagers were requested to remain present during the demarcation. Interestingly the said notice does not posses any official seal of the Mukhtiarkar.
Challenging the decision to allot the land to the DHA, Noor Hassan Jokhio, along with another 16 residents from the area, filed a petition against the government of Sindh and the DHA in the Sindh High Court. In the petition they claimed that the villages named Banjoo, Haji Allahabad, Saleh Mohammad and Abdul Sattar of both Deh Abdaar and Deh Khadeji had been sanctioned under the Goth Abad Scheme by the then deputy commissioner of Karachi on April 3, 1974. The certification of regularisation has also been confirmed by the Nazim, Union Council-2, Darsano Chhano, through a letter which states that the villages are legal and sanctioned accordingly. Moreover, the government of Sindh has already allotted the proposed land to them for a period of 30 years in 1992, which thus expires on 2022. This was done by the then commissioner and deputy commissioner of Karachi when they awarded the villagers a Form VII to the land, which is basically a letter certifying authority and rights for the cultivation of land.
According to advocate Adnan Memon, who is representing the petitioner’s case, allotment of the land to the DHA is illegal and unconstitutional. He says that throughout the deal laws have been ignored. He refers specifically to the Sindh Disposal of Urban Land Ordinance 2002: “No land shall be disposed of except by open auction at a price which shall not be less than the market price.” But neither before nor after the allotment of all 12,000 acres of land to the DHA, no auction was announced, no tenders were sought and no notice of any kind was published by the authority.
Memon argues that there, in fact, was no transparency in the allotment process. He states that the government of Sindh Land Utilisation Department’s notification of February 25, 2006, supports the 2002 ordinance and shows the faulty manner in which the deal was conducted. It states, “Auction of land shall be held by the Executive District Officer (Revenue) after publication of auction notice in the leading English, Urdu and Sindhi newspapers. The upset price shall be fixed by the Land Utilisation Department and in no case shall be below the market price.” Not only was there no open auction, but the land went to the DHA at firesale prices. The price of 100,000 rupees per acre would have been considered low even five years ago. But to award the DHA the land at that rate at the height of the recent property boom was obscene. Due to the expansion of the city on both its northern and eastern sides where both the dehs are situated, the market price of land in the area was moving upward daily for years. The price of surveyed land per acre was not less than 700,000 rupees, while non-surveyed land was 150,000 rupees per acre. At present, the value of both types of land is about 800,000 and 400,000 respectively.
How was the price of the land fixed, and which department was involved in assessing the land’s value? It’s a mystery. Khalid Mehmood Soomro, then a member of the board of revenue’s land utilisation department, admits he was unaware about the process. In August 2005, a Pakistani daily reported that Soomro “had no idea what rate had been fixed by the Sindh government for the price of the land being purchased by the DHA. Affirming that the deal between the DHA and the Sindh government would be executed by his department, he stated that the rate of Rs.100,000 per acre was very low.”
The decision to allot the land to the DHA has been challenged in the Sindh High Court and a status quo order has been granted by the court. The order, dated April 20, 2007, states, “Nobody can be deprived of his property except in due course of law, and the rights of the private persons are guaranteed under the constitution. We in these circumstances restrain the provincial government from handing over possession of private lands to the DHA.”
The land in question is, indeed, “private” in many respects. More than 10,000 people inhabit 15 different villages. And they are not squatters. These villages have been in existence for 600 years. During a survey of the area, Newsline found that agriculture and livestock were the sources of livelihood of the local communities. Even on a Sunday, while the rest of the city sleeps, tenants were busy working their fields, while herds of cows, buffaloes and cattle were grazing in the green belts of the land.
Here, land is cultivated on the basis of sharecropping. Agricultural workers mainly belong to local Jokhia community, who deem the area to be ancestral land. During harvest time, many migrant workers belonging to scheduled castes, such as Bheel, Bagri and Kohli, rush to work in fruit and vegetable farms. Locals say that supplying fresh fruit and vegetables to the market has increased the workers’ earnings, and consequently, the number of workers is increasing day-by-day.
A growing trend in poultry and cattle farming has increased the income of the local population too, and a large number of farms exist in the area. Because of these increasing employment opportunities, the trend of migration to urban areas has been reduced as traders and investors have started investing in agriculture. As such, the respective area is fast becoming a big source of fresh produce, poultry and milk.
But despite the villagers’ simple huts and farming lifestyle, the construction of metal roads, availability of electricity, schools and cemented watercourses prove that the land is more than fertile: it is developed. About 600 acres of land is cultivated through 15 tube wells. Each tube well costs about one million rupees and each has been installed by the growers themselves.
Due to the natural topography of the area, there are many catchments that conserve rainwater. Local villagers maintain that due to the recent seasonal showers more than 15 check dams have been filled with water. To conserve rainwater, Sukan Dam, measuring two kilometres long and one kilometre wide, has been constructed. The check dam was recently constructed with the assistance of the city government in Deh Khadeji at a cost of Rs.40 million. It is not difficult to imagine how the development of housing projects would affect the traditional lifestyles, agriculture, environment and millions of rupees already invested in infrastructure.
It is an established fact that the Pakistan military has been turned into a corporate giant, operating business ventures through different channels and partners. Being a strong institution, it has managed to manipulate the decisions of legislators and the judiciary and has been accused of undermining the authority of law-enforcement agencies. Moreover, the defence establishment has the ability to bring any piece of government land under its control for public purposes by using the Land Acquisition Act, 1894.
In terms of urban real estate, the military uses it land for different purposes: commercial use, service headquarters, army housing and residential housing like the DHA. Technically, the DHA is a private project, though its management comes under the control of General Headquarters (GHQ). The controlling authority negotiates the purchase of land just like other private enterprises do for constructing housing schemes. However, in this case the controlling authority is the military. Corps commanders are often the chairmen of DHA operations.
So how does the military exercise its power and influence on the legislative institutions and authorities concerned? Senator Farhatullah Babar, in an article published in Dawn on August 30, 2004, reports how “The DHA forcibly occupied 240 acres of provincial land that the government has been refusing to give it because of an ordinance which forbade the sale of government lands to other entities, and also because the housing authority was not prepared to buy it at market rates. The Sindh Government appealed to the Sindh High Court, claiming that the market price of the land was Rs.15,000 per square yard for residential and Rs.25,000 per square yard for commercial plots and urged it to restrain the DHA from taking over its land. But after the military takeover of October 1999, the provincial government was forced to withdraw its ordinance banning the sale of the land. It soon withdrew its petition from the High Court and agreed to the sale of 240 acres of land to the DHA at the astonishingly low rate of 20 rupees per square yard.” Newsline called Senator Babar, and he still stands by this analysis. He further added that later in 2004, he raised the same case in the Senate.
Meanwhile, years of urban expansion have already taken its toll, environmentally and otherwise in areas around Deh Khadeji and Deh Abdaar. Many industrial units and housing projects have been established around the Super Highway. The green belt connecting the Super Highway to the National Highway has become a prime location for investment. Sooner or later the fertile land that is the source of fresh vegetables, fruits and home to fresh air will be converted into a jungle of buildings. The natural catchments areas will be turned in to artificial swimming pools and lavish housing schemes will be built at the cost of the generations-old villages of poor tenants.
On this issue, the DHA Karachi remains quiet. When asked for comments on the development of DHA-II, Rifat Rizvi, a spokesman for the Authority, denied comment saying that the DHA was not in a position to disclose maps or details until the court makes a final decision.
However, when Sajan Khaskhely, 70, a resident of Deh Khadeji was asked what would happen if this land was allotted to the DHA, he answered. “We have been living here for centuries, we are happy with all it is given us. This land is like a mother, which feeds our cattle and us. If someone forcibly evicts us from here, then where will we find shelter and who will feed our children? We are looking for justice.”