PAC cracks down on Evacuee Trust

April 23, 2010

ISLAMABAD: The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Friday ordered a parliamentary probe into the alleged sale of land owned by a gurdwara in trust for the Sikh community.

A media report recently accused the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) – an official arm for dealing with buildings belonging to minorities – sold out at least 575 kanals of land to the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) in Lahore. At a meeting here, PAC chairman Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan constituted a special committee to investigate whether the report was true after ETPB officials rejected it as “baseless and with bad intent”. National Assembly member Zahid Hamid is to lead the probe, which is to report its findings to the main committee.

Nisar said it was “unfortunate” that land belonging to minorities was sold at a throwaway price to the DHA, which builds and develops residential colonies for military officers. ETPB ex-chairman Asif Hashmi insisted he was innocent and that the land given to DHA was never supposed to be the site for building a gurdwara. He told the committee that the board decided to sell at least 1,940 kanals of land to DHA in 2007. But once the board realised that part of the land was for the construction of a Sikh temple, the deal was limited to 843 kanals.

The chairman rejected the report that the deal harmed the board and instead insisted that it brought financial gains. According to Hashmi’s account, the agreement with the DHA was that the board would get at least 25 percent of the land back after the authority developed it for residential and commercial purposes. Under this arrangement, the chairman told the panel, the board got 212 residential and 12 commercial plots – worth Rs 1.25 billion – developed by the DHA and so, argued the chairman, helped the board overcome its financial shortcomings to better serve the minorities.

But Hashmi had no rebuttal for the fact that under the Gurdawara Act of 1925, neither the government of Pakistan nor any of its attached departments can sell property belonging to Sikhs. However, Hashmi kept insisting the board did not do anything illegal by selling the land and that a representative of the Religious Affairs Ministry was also present at the meeting where the decision to sell was taken. But the secretary for the Ministry for Minorities Javed Akhtar contested this claim.

He holds that the board violated rules in selling the land to the DHA. Meanwhile, MNA Yasmin Rehman pointed out that influential land grabbers have bought thousands of kanals from the ETPB. Hashmi recently resigned from his post in what some see as an attempt to preempt legal action after the Prime Minister’s Inquiry Commission conducted an inquiry in response to complaints by the Indian government. The PAC has summoned the secretary of the Planning Commission to its next meeting to justify appointments in one of the projects being run by the commission.