The Pakistan military is thought to own more land than any other institution or organised group in the country.
Ayesha Siddiqa, in her book Military Inc, estimates that the amount of state land under its control hovers around the 12 per cent mark, with more than half of the 11.58 million acres of land owned by individual members of the armed forces, particularly officers.
The book further says that the military’s commercial empire is often thought to be composed of a variety of unmonitored “welfare” activities. One such welfare organisation is the Army Welfare Trust (AWT) which began in 1971 with slightly over $12,000 to its name. Today, the AWT is thought to have five financial sector companies listed on the Karachi Stock Exchange and assets purportedly worth $862.1 million. Despite being a society, registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, it undertakes a large number of welfare projects.
Ayesha Siddiqa is not alone in her view that this organisation utilises state resources and profits from such use but does not reimburse or compensate the state (for the use of resources). However, if there was any doubt in such a proposition, the recent Supreme Court Judgment in the Makro-Habib case, Suo Motu Case No. 10/2009, put it to rest.
The judgment in itself discussed a complex set of facts, involving the Government of Pakistan, the AWT, the City District Government, Karachi (CDGK), as well as Makro-Habib. In a nutshell, the Government of Pakistan had purportedly leased out a parcel of land, in the middle of a highly-valued commercial neighbourhood, to the AWT for an annual rent of Rs6,020 and a premium of Rs200,640. According to the judgment, the fair yearly rent of the plot was at least Rs17.5 million. The apex court said that the transaction was neither in the interest of the public nor the government.
The judgment went on to state that the Government of Pakistan had in fact transferred the plot to the CDGK to serve as an amenity plot for the Lines Area Project well before the AWT purportedly leased it to Makro-Habib. It said that the AWT never had an interest in the land to sublease it to Makro-Habib for 30 years at an “advance rent of Rs100,000,000 based on a variable annual amount of at least Rs17,500,000, and a maximum amount that was the equivalent of one per cent of the annual turnover of Makro-Habib.” It also said that Makro- Habib had “actual notice of the claim which CDGK had over the playground” and still ventured into building its outlet, despite legal impediments.
Thereafter, on October 20, 2009, the Supreme Court in a historic decision, ordered Makro-Habib to remove its structures on the plot of land on which it had constructed its wholesale outlet, and to furthermore restore it as a playground, as per the master plan of the area. Makro- Habib promptly filed a review petition and obtained a status quo interim order maintaining the said structures on the disputed plot until the final resolution of the petition.
Hence, although we will have to wait for the final outcome of the petition before being able to say anything further regarding the actions of the AWT and Makro-Habib, one thing is for sure. In a country where the army has traditionally been considered by many as a sacred cow beyond supervision and/or monitoring of any sort, the judiciary by rendering such a decision has finally sent a strong and concrete signal that a crisp uniform or a badge on the shoulder won’t be enough to render justice impotent.
Justice may be blind, but thankfully it is no longer deaf and dumb.