Restraining land-grabbers

Those residing closest to the government utility plot have the ‘right’ to grab the land. This is widely accepted

Naween A Mangi August 14, 2015
The writer is a journalist and founder of Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust

Land-grabbers in Karachi are notorious, armed and dangerous. Their counterparts in villages across Sindh may not be as infamous but are nevertheless a major source of social destruction. Intriguingly, they don’t belong to political parties, powerful lobbies or criminal gangs. They’re ordinary people who tend farmland, rear buffalo or run neighbourhood shops.

In Sindh’s villages, there are several plots of land that are designated as public utility plots. A government representative may never have visited the settlement or surveyed the possibilities. Some government maps show these as utility plots but many areas are undocumented. Even so, every villager knows through ancestry that this is government-owned land.

Some of this land is prime roadside property. Others have become ponds because sewerage water ends up there after travelling through open drains all across the village. Yet others are plots of land below the road level where rainwater or overflow from water courses have collected.

The government — this or any one prior — has of course never utilised this land. Instead, it has let the land lay untended for decades. As a result, a well-thought out and organised land-grabbing process is at work. Here’s how it happens. Any enterprising and greedy villager living near the plot slowly and slyly begins to claim the plot. If his or her house or shop is directly next to the plot, all the easier. All they do is slowly shift their boundary and begin claiming the land a bit at a time. If it’s a pond, they begin filling it by depositing trash, hay, broken bricks or anything they can find. As soon as a portion is filled, they lay claim to it. Once they do so, their family members immediately produce a counter-claim. If one brother has taken a portion, then why not the other? This way, fights within the family over a piece of land that doesn’t belong to them or their forefathers, aren’t uncommon. Once an entire plot has been successfully captured, the land-grabber holds on to it for some time and establishes to the public his ownership; either by living there, putting up a small business or using it as a cattle pen. Soon enough, his ownership becomes indisputable and he then sells the land to someone else making a massive profit. There are no public objections because any possible opposers are busy claiming government land elsewhere in the area.

Land-grabbers have even created a system of rights. Those residing closest to the government utility plot have the ‘right’ to grab the land. This is widely accepted and these ‘rights’ are publicly known. Neighbours, a little further beyond should, therefore, seek plots in their own immediate neighbourhood. This use of public property for personal gain must be stopped immediately both by the government and by the communities in which this atrocity is taking place.

Responsible villagers must seek to build and improve their own communities by preventing land-grabbers and putting these plots to public use. This may be done if village elders exercise their influence in a positive manner. Additionally, local government representatives must establish ownership of this land and ensure grabbers are evicted.

These valuable properties may be put to several productive uses in village communities and none of these purposes need be costly or cumbersome to implement. This can be done through the collaboration of government representatives and a village youth committee — a body of energetic young people willing to take ownership and responsibility for their communities. To start with, these plots can be designated as sports grounds where young men can play cricket rather than utilising government schools where they frequently damage the building. All that’s needed is ground levelling and that will be sufficient to start with. Then, these plots are ideal for village beautification and environment-preservation projects. The forest department of the provincial government can be ordered to plant the trees lying in their care rather than leaving them to dry and rot. It’s rare to see trees inside main village settlements; farmers often plant them along their fields but in residential areas, they are uncommon. With a little added effort, they can become small neighbourhood parks for women and children. Next, these plots can simply be prepared for national and cultural festivals, which will be especially useful in areas where government schools are without playgrounds.

Then, by using simple and modest construction, these plots can be used to build community schools or adult literacy and vocational training centres. Community-based organisations won’t have to buy expensive land to provide these facilities and the availability of land will encourage them to work in the area. Even by putting up just a shade and providing constructive games such as building blocks, jigsaw puzzles, and arts and crafts materials, these plots will become centres for learning; they will automatically attract children off the street and away from gambling dens. Educated young men and women can then read stories to children in this open area and positively engage them. If nothing else, these plots of land can be used to build small wastewater treatment units that will divert sewage water away from open ponds, filter it and clean it using a home-made effluent and then transport it to irrigation canals. This way, the custom of open sewerage ponds will fade away, reducing disease, and recycled water will be available for farming. Even if the government can’t build these itself, it can donate the land to the community or non-profit organisations working in the area to do so.

Of course, if the government gets down to actually spending its development funds in a productive way, it can make even better use of this land. At the very least though, monitoring and taking small steps towards using these plots will make a dramatic difference to the village landscape. Likewise, the community is equally responsible to preserve these assets and protect them from land-grabbers to ensure they are utilised for the public good.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th,  2015.

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