KARACHI: A newly constructed cement plant operating some 54 kilometres from Karachi on the Super Highway has provided employment opportunities as well as business for vendors in the area.
As one of the largest cement exporting units of Pakistan, the construction of this plant has attracted fresh investments in Sindh from both local and foreign investors, proving that the province still has the potential to significantly contribute to the country’s economic growth. Keeping this in mind, a number of Karachi-based businessmen have ventured into this area and have started operations in the vicinity of Super Highway, owing to the fact that the land in this area is competitively priced and labour is easily available.
Its closeness to the bustling city of Karachi is another plus. One can see various businesses running in the area ranging from textile industries to food and agro industries, through which the requirements of modern agriculture in the province can also be met. The Super Highway provides a tremendous opportunity for growth and stability because there is no interference of numerous civic agencies that run the affairs of Karachi. But it has not been smooth sailing for industrialists all along.
When investment in the area began in 2003, they were not harassed by any official and the process of setting up industries continued with more and more investors buying plots. However by mid-2009, when some industries had already begun operations, the EDO Revenue started visiting the area along with police and an influential person of the area, threatening land owners and prominent industrialists to ‘regularise’ their plots. The officials harassed new land owners primarily because they were not locals and accused them of possessing forged documents of the land they owned.
In connivance with the police, the EDO and other public officials were able to extort a huge sum of money. All this was done in the name of regularisation. Later, in order to provide legal cover to the whole episode, an advertisement was published in the Sindhi language newspaper Kawish on July 1, inviting 370 land owners along the Super Highway to have their documents verified through the revenue department. By that time, officials at the revenue department had tampered with entries and prepared several duplicate documents with forged signatures of officials who were no longer alive and were ready to extort some more money for verifying documents.
Land owners, who visited the revenue department to do the needful, were later informed that they required a ‘clearance’ from certain influential people in their area only after which the EDO would be authorised to verify a case. The clearance meant paying more money. Industrialists were then forced to report the corruption to high-ups in the anti-corruption department, revenue department and the police department. Many filed constitutional petitions in the court as well. Upon learning that there was no monetary gain in sight, these area influentials launched a massive operation against the land owners, pressuring them to “clear their dues”.
This was done with the help of local police, with whom they shared a copy of the fake land documents in order to justify their act. Private armed men, who are known in the area for their criminal activities, were sent to extract money from these land owners, some of whom are prominent exporters and industrialists in Karachi. When the owners tried to resist, they threatened the security guards first, asking them to vacate the land or face dire consequences and further hardened their stance to dispossess the industrialists of their land. As if this was not enough, the influential men hired thugs to dismantle the heavy imported factory sheds and sell the iron and steel fabrication, while the police stood by and watched.
Investors attempted to lodge an FIR, but the police refused. Help of other relevant authorities and the Sindh chief minister was also sought and they were informed of the injustice along with documentary evidence, but they turned a blind eye and offered no support to the investors. In the end, it was the Sindh High Court that rescued the investors by issuing status quo orders against the whitecollared thieves. Several MPAs of Sindh are themselves the victims of the land mafia and have recorded their grievances against grade six officers - referred to as Tapedars and Mukhtiarkars - but the government is yet to take a notice.
Little does this mafia realise that they are harming the national economy for paltry gains. With the loss of a midsized industrial unit, 450 jobs are gone, the workers colony abandoned and schools and clinics left unattended. As I write this, I am reminded of the chief minister’s ‘Sindh Investment Conference’ that rubs salt into the wounds of the investors. Some pertinent questions that arise in one’s minds are: Who would want to invite a fresh investor when existing investors are treated in this manner without being given any help whatsoever? Is there any department to address the grievances of investors or hold these socalled ‘influential landlord’ accountable? Which foreign investor in his right mind would be willing to invest here after reading the abovementioned facts?
Published in the Express Tribune, May 24th, 2010.