Land-use policy

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

THE media is full of real estate ads offering plots of land, condominiums, apartments, one-unit houses, holiday homes, farmhouses, commercial spaces, etc, in many locations in the country. The use of AI and digital imagery in these ads mesmerises the potential buyer. A closer look, though, reveals flaws in planning, design, execution and delivery.

Many schemes are announced for lands that haven’t been legally acquired for real estate development. Some years ago, a real estate venture was launched along Karachi’s M-9 Motorway, where legal and administrative formalities for sale were not fulfilled. The matter landed in the Supreme Court, which imposed a hefty fine on the realtor concerned in 2018. Yet, the project is becoming a large-scale enterprise, with its footprints all over the adjacent districts.

Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority handed over some 190 acres of land in Zone 5 to the Defence Housing Authority in 2007. The DHA was to provide 700 developed plots to CDA in return. The matter remains unresolved.

The Eden Housing Society venture is another scam. The commercial enterprise invited people to book plots in its real estate scheme in Lahore. After collecting billions of rupees, it failed to deliver. The matter went to NAB, but only partial relief could be extended to some affected investors.

Social justice must be the guiding principle.

In many instances, ecological assets are targeted for commercial development. Some years ago, the Pakistan Island Development Authority Ordinance was promulgated. It aimed at creating an authority to transform the Bundal and Buddo Islands off the Karachi coast into high-end real estate, with $50 billion as potential investment. Due to political friction between the centre and the Sindh government, little headway was made — thankfully. Otherwise, an already vulnerable coastal ecosystem would have been completely destroyed.

Similar instances are likely to emerge under the reckless move of selling state land reserves to make a quick buck. This is a serious matter which needs a solution before crucial government departments lose all the lands they own.

Development of real-estate ventures has now encroached on prime agricultural and orchard lands in major cities — including Lahore. A journey along Raiwind Road, Multan Road, Ferozepur Road and other principal arteries towards the suburbs reveals a patchwork of housing estates on farmlands, a pattern found in many other cities where farmland is being ruthlessly usurped for real estate schemes.

Reportedly, a realtor is levelling the ground in the peripheries of the Kirthar National Park in the outskirts of Karachi, although the government knows that national parks are meant for the promotion and conservation of indigenous plant and animal habitats. Physical development is strictly prohibited in such locations. If these unregulated practices of unplanned land-use conversions continue, the ecological balance will be badly disrupted.

Our big cities, including Karachi, have large swathes of land. In many neighbourhoods, plots of land were sold more than 20 years ago with no development. The owners are content that their investment is safe. The development authorities are satisfied that they have been successful in carving out profitable ventures from land acquired at extremely cheap rates from the provincial government. But the urban poor, the working-class households and other needy groups that require land for shelter cannot access these expensive land markets.

Many government departments have sold or purchased lands in huge quantities. In most cases, the information is kept concealed from society including certain stakeholders. Many negative outcomes emerge from this peculiar approach. Land-use conversions are done without any land-use plan. Agencies dealing with infrastructure and utilities are neither consulted nor informed about future land schemes. And all the while, the urban poor are being deprived of opportunities to access land for housing.

In sum, no structured criterion is being applied to the opening up of land reserves for sale and development.

It is important to note that land is an asset, not a commodity. It must be utilised keeping social justice as the guiding principle. The continuing sale of land will leave our cities and suburbs short of an asset needed for essential amenities and services. Government departments that own land must act as trustees of this asset. In order to promote transparency at all stages of functioning, government agencies must endeavour to publish land records that have the necessary information. A scientifically prepared land-use policy is needed for the country to preserve its farmlands and orchards, to protect ecologically sensitive locations against depletion, to safeguard sensitive environmental territories and to thwart man’s greed.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2023