KARACHI — Pakistan is in the middle of an unusual property boom. Developers grab large tracts of land, stealing them outright or occupying them, advertise mega development projects and then buy off regulators with the money they raise selling some of the land they dubiously claim. Poor people who have lived in their homes for generations are served eviction notices and visited by bulldozers in the dead of night.
On one side of my house in Karachi is a market. It’s a typical Pakistani market, with car mechanics, barbers, milk and bread sellers, drapers. During the last few years, many of the shops have turned into real estate agencies. One day I counted 153 before giving up. Agents who can’t afford to own proper offices sit on the sidewalks and deal there.
On the other side of my house, some 600 yards away, is the Arabian Sea. In the last couple of years, part of the sea has been reclaimed for a military-run housing scheme. Where once there were murky waves, you can now buy what is advertised as a “super hot” 300-square yard plot for 200 million rupees (more than $1.3 million) That’s in the extension of the Defense Housing Authority’s Phase 8 development project — which is being extended even though it is mostly unpopulated.
People who buy these plots aren’t buying them to build houses: They hold on until they can sell one plot here to buy two others elsewhere. I live in Phase 5, and it, too, still has lots of empty plots.
To Pakistanis struggling to keep a roof over their heads, the government and the courts can be positively hostile. In October, residents of Pakistan Quarters, a 70-year-old residential development in Karachi, were given just 10 days to leave their homes. (After protesters clashed with police, the deadline was extended. The matter is still in court.) In an ongoing clearance drive, this weekend bulldozers went to a place called Gharibabad — literally, the neighborhood of the poor — and destroyed more than 50 homes. Empress Market, the city’s oldest market, was demolished overnight in November. Many commercial areas in Karachi where the poor trade with the poor are being declared illegal.
Last year, real-estate dealers and builders and others held street protests here against a Supreme Court decision that suspended a mega housing project because the owners of the land were accused of having acquired it illegally. The court reversed its decision in April after hearings that sounded like a long, drawn-out auction, during which the builders offered to pay, first, 200 billion rupees, then 435 billion, then 450 billion and, finally, 460 billion rupees (about $3 billion). In exchange, other proceedings involving corruption allegations would be halted. The court has yet to decide what to do with the money, but the provincial government has claimed it.
The Pakistani courts are very generous with people who build illegal mansions or luxury apartment buildings. Just last month in Islamabad, several thousand people were evicted from E-12, a self-built slum adjacent to posh mansions, where some had been living for more than a decade. A few months before, the country’s highest court had regularized the construction, at One Constitution Avenue, Islamabad, of a plush building complex to be called the Grand Hyatt Hotel — a project whose legality the city’s own development authority agency has challenged. Prime Minister Imran Khan owns an apartment in the building.
Property scams start from the top and are never called scams. They cut across political divides, even the biggest divide of them all: between civilian and military authorities.
The former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was convicted of corruption partly for failing to account for four apartments in Mayfair, London. Asif Zardari, a former president, and some of his relatives bought several properties in France, Britain, the United States and Dubai, apparently through illegal bank accounts. The current prime minister’s closest and most senior minister, Aleem Khan (no relation), is being investigated for a multibillion rupees housing-development swindle.
At the top of Pakistan’s property ladder sits the army, which has developed vast housing estates in all major cities. Although these were meant to be for retired officers and their relatives (and never for just soldiers), the plots are often sold to the highest bidders. It’s a lucrative business: People know that governments come and go, but the army is here to stay, and its housing societies, too.
That doesn’t make them a safe investment, though. One army-run estate in Lahore was designed for the families of disabled soldiers or soldiers killed in service. People invested billions of rupees to buy property there at subsidized rates; an estimated 13 billion rupees have disappeared. One of the accused is a brother of the former Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. In a rare flourish, one of the Supreme Court judges hearing a related case told the army’s lawyer, “It seems that you people run the business by using widows and martyrs as a shield, and you pocket royalties in their name.”
When Gen. Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s last army chief, retired, he was awarded 88 acres of land — the nation’s gift for his services, I guess. The land was meant for farming. But Mr. Sharif serves in Saudi Arabia as the head of some vague force that will supposedly rid us of terrorism. He doesn’t have time for farming.
Land grabbing in Pakistan probably started with the birth of the country. People made fortunes either by occupying or claiming properties left behind by people who fled during Partition in 1947. You can still find entire estates and villages named after bureaucrats, who had basically allotted them to themselves. Much of this land was acquired on the pretense of agricultural development; it has become gated communities and golf courses.
Mr. Khan owns nearly 40 acres on the top of a hill in Islamabad, which he says he bought after selling property in London — which he’d bought with money he made as a star cricket player. Any number of laws were broken so that he could build a mansion there. A special federal commission was set up (after Mr. Khan took office) just for the purpose of regularizing that arrangement.
No commission has been set up, though, to regularize the housing rights of the residents of E-12 or Gharibabad, or Pakistan’s soon-to-be-homeless.
Mohammed Hanif (@mohammedhanif) is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” and “Red Birds.” He is a contributing opinion writer.
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