May 3, 2009

In whose interest?

The people of Sindh continue to suffer due to the lack of an institutionalised process for land disposal
By Dr Noman Ahmed
In Karachi and other urban locations, land grabbing has evolved as a firm enterprise. Quasi political groups and others disguised as such can be found flexing their muscles and displaying armed strength in this quest. Major corridors of movement -- such as Super Highway, National Highway, Karachi Northern Bypass and Lyari Expressway -- have become sites of this profane enterprise that is depriving the state and other legal owners of their assets. Many experts are of the view that the weakening of land control mechanisms from the legal and administrative respects has caused anarchy in this sector.
A useful statute in this respect was the Sindh Disposal of Urban Land Ordinance 2002, which was repealed by the previous Sindh Assembly in 2006. Therefore, no institutionalised process for land disposal and grant exists in the province. It has led to widespread adhocism, out of book disposals and clandestine transactions. As the present regime is a politically strong coalition, it will be in the best interest of Karachi and the province to evolve a potent legal and administrative mechanism to protect land reserves.
Land is a finite resource. Sindh, as a province, had considerable reserves of state land that later fell within the limits of urban areas. Historically, this land was considered as an asset. It was carefully utilised for residential, commercial, agricultural, recreational, industrial and other purposes. The outlook has changed considerably. Instead of an asset, land was viewed as a tradable commodity. This gave rise to evolution of a land market that was entirely uncontrolled, discretionary and haywire. In short, nascent market forces determined the utilisation and transaction of land, as opposed to rational public choices. Without realising the social, ecological and even long-term economic consequences, the sale and transaction of land has continued unabated.
The commodification of land has been a direct outcome of the neo-liberal political doctrine that was adopted under the western influence. Donor agencies have been pressurising various government departments to auction land assets, either for retiring existing debts or improving their financial positions. In Sindh, this meant distribution of land following a market-driven approach without long- or short-term planning prescriptions. In many cases, the landuses could not be planned or properly ascertained. Such short sightedness gave rise to unscientific prioritisation of land for sale and development.
Land disposal schemes mostly developed as a clandestine marriage of convenience, rather than a transparent and equal opportunity enterprise. The attempts made in this respect have been severely criticised by the users, media and analysts. Political interest has been one of the prime factors that determined the procedure of land supply. This interest superseded the urban and regional planning considerations, objectives and policies of the administration, fiscal liabilities, and even legal limitations. Whereas the upper tiers of government were largely involved in this process, successive Sindh chief ministers played the key role in land allotment due to the infinite authority vested in their office, as well as the political clout that they enjoyed in the national and provincial politics.
Bypassing the laws, regulations and norms thus became a routine exercise that did not let any land supply mechanism to function. In brief, land parcels were allotted due to political pressure from the influentials / party workers and bullies of various kinds. Political bribes were also given in the form of land. The announcement and cancellation of housing schemes was done on the same basis. Government departments, law enforcing agencies, financial institutions and urban development authorities simply became carriers of orders in that working setup.
Traditionally, existing pattern of land ownership has a direct bearing on its transition in the urban scenario. The clan influences, appropriation and possession of land were the important factors that governed the directions of development. When land was in private ownership under traditional landlords, they lobbied with the public sector officials to devise the development policies / priorities to maximise their benefits. Planning and development of communication schemes, transportation projects and investment in infrastructure schemes were largely manipulated on the same basis. The fringes of large cities are the most important choices in this regard. The north western outskirts of Karachi are one of the main locations where local landlords have traditionally benefited from the growth of the city.
The existing patterns of land supply created a visible disparity between the privileged and non-privileged classes. As mentioned earlier, land was procured, developed and sold through the priorities and conditions laid down by the public sector agencies in liaison with the powerful interest groups. These groups attempted to maximise their respective profits by moulding the decision-making in their favour. Land supply was one such prerogative. Thus, the unprivileged had to fend for themselves in the informal locations as per availability of land. Many negative repercussions have developed in the course. The inner city ring of Karachi between 0-10 km radius has most of the upper income groups residing in the area. Squatters and low-income localities are far away, making the poor to commute long distances to their places of work in dilapidated transport systems.
In the procedures of land development and supply, the distinction between formal and informal sector is swiftly diminishing due to the incapability of the formal sector to control the overall factors that affect land market. The concepts and implementation mechanisms of the public sector have begun accepting the existence of informal sector operations to a considerable extent. This is evident from the fact that evictions of informal settlements have been taken after cautions and the government regularises them in the usual working norms.
De-facto ownership of land is now given due regard in the development operations and is often temporarily recognised. Besides, direct transaction of raw land from the Board of Revenue to the user groups is another citation in this respect where the conventional water tight authority is not extended towards such activities. In fact, the acceptance (at least at the conceptual level) of the incremental housing development proves that the government recognises squatting as an option if it is guided through some basic plan.
Keeping a soft attitude towards land grabbers and violators of law shall only dilute the writ of the government. It will not help any political group or party in the long-term. A rational option is to investigate the trends in a scientific manner, analyse the situation and apply the acquired feedback towards formulation of workable legal and administrative mechanisms for land management. Otherwise, the common people of Karachi and the province shall be the ultimate losers!

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