While we are all cognisant of the fact that terrorism presents an existential threat to the country, why are we ignoring the multiple threats presented by the land mafia active in all our major cities? In Karachi, the land mafia is involved in drugs, illegal weapons, kidnappings for ransom, bank robberies and many other crimes; it has made the city a living hell for the common citizen.
In Lahore, there is a well-connected land mafia that keeps its eyes on uninhabited plots and buildings in prime areas and moves in with fake ID cards to take possession, leaving the real owners (often living abroad) to then pursue the case in the courts for years.
While Islamabad is a comparatively much safer city than Karachi, it too has a local version of the land mafia whose activities go unchecked. The Capital Development Authority (CDA) has recently admitted that 54,552 kanals of state-owned land are under the possession of land grabbers or have been encroached upon!
The reason that land mafias get away with their illegal activities is because of the patronage of powerful politicians and government officials — it really is as simple as that. The land mafia is a nexus comprising politicians, criminals, property dealers and corrupt government officials. The most glaring example of land grabbing in Islamabad involves the relatives of an influential politician, a prominent parliamentarian, who have helped themselves to a huge chunk of land adjacent to the Korang River in Bani Gala in a place called Morah Noor. They have cut down the trees in the area and are farming the land, and dumping their waste into the river that feeds the nearby Rawal Dam reservoir, which, in turn, supplies Islamabad and Rawalpindi with its ‘clean’ drinking water. Rawal Lake is a source of drinking water for over two million residents of the twin cities, but untreated waste discharged into the lake from these illegal human settlements and livestock pens is a threat to the quality of the water.
Earlier this year, the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency issued a notification for a blanket ban on unapproved new structures in Rawal Lake’s catchment areas. Yet, the building goes on without any controls. “We can see new houses being built; this is very expensive land here, yet these people have come in without any proof of purchase and just started building homes and farming. They are least bothered about the cleanliness of the river bank; they have even somehow got electricity. I mean, how did they get here and where did they get the electricity? The authorities are just not doing anything,” says a neighbour who has built her home across the other side of the river in Bani Gala with her life savings.
In 2011, the Supreme Court, noting that it would not allow the land mafia to grab state land, asked the CDA to retake 20,000 acres of land the CDA says is under illegal occupation (including in Bani Gala). Usually the CDA heads are reluctant to challenge illegal encroachments because of the powerful people hiding behind these land grabbers, so it was hoped that the Supreme Court’s decision would spur them into action. However, the civic agency failed to reclaim most of the encroached land. The CDA even has satellite images of Islamabad that prove encroachments have increased in the federal capital by 70 per cent in the last 10 years. Something needs to be done before Islamabad turns into another Karachi.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2014.