The first major operation against squatters on government land ended badly on Thursday after two men were shot dead in crossfire with the police.
The police had gone to kick off encroachers who had taken over 174 out of 450 acres of land reserved for the cottage industry in Baldia Town. Last week, all members of the Sindh government had agreed that the land mafia must be dealt with. In this particular case, the land was set aside by Benazir Bhutto when she became prime minister in 1996. Encroachments had started two months ago.
Illegal plots were being sold for up to Rs200,000 and several people had built and were living in houses. When the city government threatened to launch an operation, the prices of the plots came down to Rs15,000. There are four FIRs lodged at Mochko Police Station against these illegal occupations.
The land mafia is active in all parts of the city where thousands of acres of land have been illegally taken over. Most attempts to have the land freed are met with resistance.
This operation began in earnest on Thursday after city government officials, who went to reclaim the land Wednesday, were attacked. The two men, allegedly associated with the land mafia, Habib Noor, and 28-year-old Fareedullah Mumtaz, were killed.
SHO Mochko Farman said that the land was occupied by two land grabbers, Sher Khan Mehsud and Gul Zaman Mehsud. An armoured personnel carrier was damaged in the operation.
Soon after the deaths, hundreds of residents emerged from their homes to protest against the operation. They pelted the police and their vehicles with stones. According to SHO Nayyarul Haq, policemen from Saeedabad, Mochko, SITE and Orangi police stations participated in the operation. Both the police and the mafia shot at each other and the police used tear gas shells as well to disperse the mob. An unidentified man was also injured in the firing.
The police also claimed to have bulldozed illegal constructions on 150 acres reserved for the cottage industry. The Rangers were also called in for backup when the situation took a turn for the worse.
Residents had made several complaints to the police, prompting the city government’s decision to have the land freed. Land mafia members had put up a strong resistance when the police tried to enter the area.
SHO Haq of the Anti-Encroachment Cell said that a part of the land was evacuated but the operation was called off in the middle after the protests grew. “We could not move freely,” he explained. “We had two options: either to use force or to wait for some time,” he said, adding that in the interest of saving lives, the police decided to stop the operation.
The land mafia managed to escape after the encounter and they also left behind a couple of cars. The police cordoned off the area and were present in Baldia Town all day.
Project Director Amir Ali Bhatti said that some members of the land mafia had set up a city government dumper truck on fire recently. Officials at the cottage industry project have accused the police of supporting the land mafia.
Last week, in a meeting at Governor House, all political parties in the coalition government in Sindh had agreed to evacuate the land grabbed by the mafia in different parts of the city. The revenue department and police were given powers to take action against the land grabbers.
Around 400 acres were freed in Gadap Town and two people were also arrested by a joint team of the revenue department and the police on Wednesday.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2010.