Ibrahim Kachelo’s run-in with the most powerful development authority in Pakistan happened in early October.
“I was returning from a check-up when I saw a group of people, accompanied by armed guards, putting up concrete DHA markers on and around my land,” says the farmer, his weather-beaten face flushed with indignation.
“I told them to leave, that I have a lease for it but they wouldn’t listen.” Furious, Mr Kachelo knocked down the markers in the DHA officials’ presence, the guards drew their guns and a brawl ensued.
Ibrahim Kachelo standing alongside one of the DHA markers that he knocked down. White Star
The men retreated, but Mr Kachelo fears that was not the last he has seen of them.
His reaction stemmed not only from anger, but fear — fear that he will be driven from the land that has been in his family for generations. After all, he has seen it happen to others not too far from where his orchard is located along the northbound track of Superhighway in Malir, the largest of Karachi’s six districts.
On the opposite side, along the highway’s southbound track, the DHA City Karachi (DCK) housing project is under construction on 11,640 acres in deh Abdar and deh Khadeji (a deh is the smallest revenue unit for land in Sindh, similar to ‘mauza’ in the rest of the country).
Metalled roads and farmhouses have erased the pastureland where livestock belonging to the villagers used to graze, and the villages themselves have either been walled off or are in the process of being so as construction of the housing community proceeds.
That they were able to retrieve some of their land from DHA is only because they filed a petition in the Sindh High Court and it ruled in their favour.
(See box below) That they were able to retrieve some of their land from DHA is only because they filed a petition in the Sindh High Court and it ruled in their favour.
These 11,640 acres, which comprise Sectors 1 – 16 of the housing project, were allotted to DHA in 2005 at a concessional rate of Rs100,000 per acre by the Board of Revenue, Sindh.
(BoR is the provincial government department that is the original custodian of all land in the province, and the controlling authority for collection of land revenue, maintaining land records, etc.)
The ‘visit’ by the officials of the Defence Housing Authority, Karachi to Mr Kachelo’s land was in connection with the expansion of DCK along the highway’s northbound track, specifically over 8,000 acres in dehs Kathore and Boil.
Mr Kachelo’s land in deh Boil has been in his family since generations; he himself has been cultivating it for 40 years. A rocky outcrop affords a bird’s eye view of the huge orchard, dense with guava trees.
“Over the years, I’ve spent millions of rupees on it, including the expense of a tube well. This is my life’s work,” he says.
There are many others like him in the surrounding area, where lush pumpkin fields are interspersed with rows upon rows of trellises abounding in bitter gourd ivy. Orchards of guava, chiku and shareefa dot the landscape.
“The rains were plentiful this year so the wells have been renewed and the check dam has filled up,” says Waheed Sikander Chhutto, another one of the hundreds of farmers who toil the land in this area. “We shouldn’t have any problem cultivating for the next two years.”
Their immediate concern is DCK’s planned expansion. Taj bibi, picking ripened pumpkins along with other women, frets about how the 50 or so members of the extended family that live on the proceeds of their farm will survive if they are forced to leave.
A group of little girls — the youngest of whom is named Benazir — giggle shyly as they pose for pictures, blissfully unaware of the cares that have robbed the adults of their sleep.
(The estimated total population of deh Kathore is 15,000 and that of deh Boil 1,200, all of whom are dependent on the local agricultural economy.)
In 2012, BoR Sindh cancelled all 30-year agricultural leases on the 8,000 acres in dehs Kathore and Boil and allotted the land to DHA, a development the villagers only became aware of a year later.
However, aside from a brief foray by DHA personnel into deh Boil around that time — which ended abruptly when the locals sent them packing — the villagers had no reason to believe that their lives were about to be upended.
In early 2017, officials from DCK across the highway began to pay regular visits, pressing them to give up their land, carrying out surveys of the area and marking the boundaries of the housing project.
“They told us, ‘Look, this is a fauji idara [army institution], if it wants to enter this place you can’t stop it’,” said one of the villagers. “But how can we leave? This is not about money. Our zameen is like our mother, it sustains us.”
Illegal cancellation of farming leases
Although the government is entitled to cancel 30-year agricultural leases of the kind possessed by these farmers, it is not an absolute right; it is a qualified one.
According to Section 24 of the Colonisation of Government Lands Act 1912, if the land authority believes that a tenant has committed a breach of the conditions of his tenancy, he must be given the opportunity to defend himself.
Also, according to this law, no penalty can be imposed on the tenant nor his lease cancelled unless he is given a written notice to rectify the breach within a reasonable time, which should be no less than one month.
Such protection of an individual’s right to property is in consonance with principles of universal common law.
(Moreover, the Land Acquisition Act 1984 stipulates that the government can acquire land on payment of compensation when such land is required for a “public purpose”. Handing it over to a private developer does not fall under this definition.)
Farmers in dehs Kathore and Boil were renewing their leases regularly, paying their dues and cultivating crops as per the conditions of their lease.
A number of them have filed joint petitions against the cancellation of their leases, naming officials in the Sindh government and DHA, Karachi as respondents.
It is no less than a David and Goliath struggle playing out in the backyard of Pakistan’s largest city.
Officers at DHA, Karachi contend that as it is the Sindh government that has allotted them the land for DCK, it absolves them of responsibility for the farmers’ plight.
“They have given it to us according to their due process, and they dealt with the leases on it, and we checked it according to our procedures,” said Administrator DHA, Karachi Brigadier Shahid Hassan Ali in an interview with Dawn.
“Actually, DHA is a vulnerable hostage because we follow the law.” He added that their system of checks and balances was far superior to that of the civilians. “If the government has 10 procedures, we have 17.”
It was on May 6, 2011, when a letter — DHA/TP&BC/ 108/ DCK — from then DHA Administrator Brigadier Aamer Raza Qureshi to the then Sindh chief minister Qaim Ali Shah set in motion events that were to have far-reaching repercussions on the lives of the people in these parts of Malir.
The letter, which is in Dawn’s possession, thanks the Sindh government for allotting the first chunk of 11,640 acres at a concessional rate.
It goes on to state that, “However, the land that DHA had earlier acquired from the Govt of Sindh is insufficient to meet this demand.
The requirement of additional land has become imperative in view of the increasing number of casualties of the armed forces personnel in the War against Terror.
The Pak Army has a pressing need to rehabilitate the families of the martyrs and DHA Karachi has no option but to request you to meet this obligation towards those who have laid [down] their lives for the motherland.”
It then goes on to request the provincial government to lease an additional 5,000 to 7,000 acres on the same terms and conditions and at the same concessional rate of Rs100,000 per acre as the earlier allotment.
According to the Sindh Disposal of Urban Land Ordinance, 2002, “The disposal of land by Government to an Authority…shall be at the market price [as assessed by the deputy commissioner] through an agreement.”
(Land for low-cost housing schemes, however, is an exception: this may be allotted at concessional rates, which must nevertheless be at least 25pc of market value.)
As per market rates, land on both sides of the Superhighway was worth at least Rs10 million per acre in 2011.
The letter by the DHA administrator to the Sindh chief minister proceeds to helpfully add: “We would like to inform you that a parcel of approximately 10,000 acres of land is available in Deh Boil adjacent to the land already allotted.”
By July 9, 2011, as noted in a document signed by the City District Government of Karachi’s district officer (revenue), the tapedar (land record officer) of the area concerned had reported that a 7,000-acre chunk of land in deh Boil was available for allotment to DHA.
According to this document, the tapedar reported that 30-year leases had been given to 179 locals on 1,481 acres of this area for the purposes of poultry farming and wahi chahi (land partly irrigated from a well) and barani cultivation.
Only a “few” people, it said, “have developed/utilised the land for the purpose…Hence, except few matured cases (sic) the remaining grants are liable for cancellation proceedings as per conditions of grant”.
The tapedar concerned, as per the document, also specified two chunks of land adding up to 1,000 acres in deh Kathore as being available for allotment to DHA. “Some 30 years undeveloped grants are also falling in the above area”, he claimed.
In a letter dated Jan 7, 2012, the Sindh government noted that 8,000 acres had been allotted on payment by DHA of Rs800 million at Rs100,000 per acre and that all 30-year leases on that land had been cancelled.
An unequal contest
To gauge the jaw-dropping ‘rebate’ given by the Sindh government to a profit-making venture, consider the following.
Even according to the official rates, the 11,640 acres in dehs Abdar and Khadeji — which comprise the initial phase of DCK — are worth an average of Rs1.2m per acre. That adds up to Rs14 billion.
In the next phase, which involves dehs Boil and Kathore, the 7,000 acres in Boil are worth a total of 7.7bn while the 1,000 acres in Kathore add up to Rs4bn.
Based on the official rates (a fraction of actual market value), the price of the entire 19,640 acres is Rs25.7bn. The Sindh government sold it to DHA, Karachi for only Rs1.96bn. If the market rate is applied, the land is worth an eye-watering Rs196bn.
Moreover, the allotment of the 7,000 acres in Boil, plus 1,000 acres in Kathore — a thousand acres in excess of what was demanded by DHA — offers evidence, yet again, of how the bosses of the Sindh government sacrifice the rights of the people to profit from favours to powerful segments of society.
(Ironically enough, this area has long been a PPP vote block. In the eyes of the villagers, the PPP government’s role in depriving them of their land is a betrayal of the Bhutto legacy by the party’s current leadership. “If Benazir had been alive today, this would never have happened,” said Ajmal Jokhio, his voice quavering with emotion, as several other villagers nodded in agreement.)
The provincial political heavyweights’ alacrity in matters like these is in stark contrast to its sluggish or non-existent response where the people’s basic needs are concerned.
For instance, there is no higher secondary school for girls within reasonable distance, which discourages parents from educating their daughters beyond Grade 8.
“We’ve had the school upgraded till Matric,” says Abdul Qayyum, a teacher at the local secondary school. “But the government has yet to appoint teachers and sanction funds for their salaries, etc.”
Their repeated applications during last several years to the education department and to the local PPP MPA Sajid Jokhio have fallen on deaf ears.
The locals’ appeals to authorities about the imminent loss of their land have been similarly ignored. In a small provisions store in deh Boil, amidst the shelves of juice boxes, packets of crisps and other assorted items, local councillor Karim Bakhsh Chutta opened a small, battered case.
It contained documentation of the residents’ struggle against DHA Karachi on the one hand and Bahria Town Karachi (BTK) on the other, two behemoths squeezing them from both sides in a pincer movement.
There are letters to the Sindh chief minister, Rangers, police, etc asking for their help in preventing the takeover of their thriving farmland. All have gone unanswered.
Having run out of options, residents of Abdul Rehman Chhutto goth in deh Boil have filed a constitutional petition No. 6504/2017 against the Sindh government and DHA Karachi.
In it, they denied that their leased agricultural lands — which add up to 229 acres, aside from the 18 acres on which stands goth Abdul Rehman which was regularised under the Gothabad Scheme Act, 1987 — had not, as claimed by the provincial government, lain undeveloped in violation of the lease terms.
As the matter stands at present, the Sindh government and DHA, Karachi have been issued notices to respond.
District Malir, measuring 521,000 acres, lies in the north and east of Karachi. Its 43 dehs comprise the rural outskirts of Karachi. Many of these dehs, such as Langheji, Kathore and Boil were part of the city’s periphery that supplies fruit and vegetables to Karachi.
This green belt is all the more precious because of the unplanned construction that is obliterating green spaces in the city’s urban areas. When it rains in the Kirthar range, the water rolls down to the plains of Malir to replenish the aquifers and check dams and bring seasonal streams to life.
The land here is either rain-fed (barani) — with agriculture being dependent on the rains — or it is sustained all year round by groundwater drawn through tube wells.
Notwithstanding its close proximity to a large urban centre, an oppressive feudal system prevails here.
Sardar Malik Asad Sikander, a PPP MNA from Jamshoro, is the most powerful feudal in the area, which is colloquially known as Kohistan (comprising Jamshoro and Hyderabad districts, as well as parts of Karachi’s districts Malir and West).
Chief of the Burro tribes including Kachelo, Palari and Gondar sub-tribes, he exerts the kind of influence that brooks no defiance. “I hope our names are not going to be printed,” says a local in a white, mirrored Sindhi cap. “These are sardar log. They will destroy us.”
Mr Sikander regularly plays host to Arab royalty and assorted members of the Pakistani establishment and social elite on hunting expeditions in these parts of Malir district.
The expansion of DCK and nearby BTK is inversely proportional to the diminishing of his power and influence.
Nevertheless, however well-connected he is, Mr Sikander has to tread carefully given DHA’s enormous clout and the business connections of Bahria Town CEO Malik Riaz with VVIPs in Sindh.
At the same time, everything is negotiable for a price, which in his case is reportedly scores of ‘files’ to the thousands of plots being carved out in the housing projects, not to mention other political advantages.
DHA Karachi requested the land for DCK — 11,640 acres first and 8,000 acres later — for the purpose of rehabilitating the families of the soldiers martyred in the ‘war on terror’. According to military sources, an estimated 6,000 personnel have been martyred in the war against terrorism since 2001.
According to Administrator DHA Brig Ali, the fallen soldiers are compensated according to their rank, albeit there can be exceptions to this rule.
“The plots range between five marlas (100 square yards) to an acre (4,840 square yards),” he said. That raises the logical question: why then the requirement for so much land in the name of the martyred?
“The families could have been given plots in a city closer to their homes,” says a disgruntled former local government official.
“Using the fallen for a commercial venture is unprecedented in the country’s history. It’s a crime committed by the Musharraf government against the people of Karachi.”
The provision of housing is universally considered the basic responsibility of a state towards its citizens. Housing should be planned and developed for living in, not for speculation.
Exploitation of land for commercial reasons results in artificial price increase and ultimately puts housing out of the reach of the common man.
“These so-called housing schemes are siphoning away every last paisa that could help develop low to medium housing in Karachi,” claims a former director KDA.
At 19,640 acres (11,640 plus 8,000 on both sides of the Superhighway), DCK is not only more than twice the size of DHA’s first eight phases in the city, which add up to 8,852 acres, it is also larger than Karachi’s Central District (19,000 acres), as well as Lahore’s Old City area (16,000 acres).
According to experts, development of schemes like DCK in the green belts and protected areas of Karachi by powerful developers violates all rationales, including rights to property, environmental laws and principles of urban planning.
“In any city outside South Asia, they wouldn’t have gotten permission. They would have been told to finish developing [the existing phases] first,” said urban planner Arif Hasan.
Even 37 years after the inception of DHA Karachi, an area in excess of 3,000 acres in DHA phases VIII, & VII-extension is still lying vacant, for which, incidentally, DHA has also collected development charges four times.
According to a former land official: “It is incomprehensible that a developer whose capacity utilisation has been so poor during four decades has been allowed to undertake another scheme two and a half times in size”.
“Speculation is not in our control,” said Brig Ali. “The private investor comes in, and instead of living on it, sells it on. These are market forces about which we can do nothing.” He admits however, that it will be decades before the project is populated.
A transparent approach?
DHA Karachi’s administrator, a qualified civil engineer, said: “We’re looking at sustainability… We’ve got four or five operational check dams while another two or three are planned, so underground water is recharged…we haven’t disturbed any of the natural nallahs either.”
Planned as a “green and smart” city, the housing project is equipped with a 1.1 megawatt solar project.
In response to a question about supply of water and other utilities, the administrator replied that DHA had approached the Sindh government for a reasonable allocation from K-4.