In downtown Rawalpindi, Asghar Mall Road is one of the key arteries, housing notable educational institutions, private hospitals, business hubs and leading to the conventional food street. For all its attractions, it has long been a traffic nightmare due to which most of the citizens of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad avoid going there and are hence denied its benefits. Situation changed on October 11 when Rawalpindi Development Authority (RDA) and municipal administration removed almost all “unauthorised structures” from the road.
Exhausted and drained of energy, Kashif Saeed, in black shalwar kameez, stood on the footpath in front of his demolished stall while his brothers and their children were trying to resurrect what can be resurrected. “I do not own this land. But this is all I have. I am a tenant. My brother gave me some money to set up this shop and scratch a living. Now it is gone,” inconsolable Saeed tells TNS.
Other people in the area said that everybody knew that these structures and even many shops were illegal but it has been business as usual. Muhammad Hafeez, who is not an employee of the Rawalpindi Development Authority, was recording on his cell phone each and every move of the operation and looked very over-joyed. He said Prime Minister Imran Khan has issued an order to take back state land from encroachers and it will add billions of rupees to national exchequer, adding that after Asghar Mall, the operation will be extended to adjacent Raja Bazaar.
However, a Rawalpindi Development Authority (RDA) official told TNS the order has not come from Imran Khan or the PM House. “The CM Punjab had us and all other district administrations on video link to issue the order for removing encroachments,” he said. He confirmed that Raja Bazaar will also be free of encroachments.
Raja Bazaar is the largest and oldest business and trade centre with traces of ancient art and architecture, old worship places and Leh River that is now reduced to Leh Nulla. Evacuee Trust or Auqaaf Department owns and rents out all this prime property. Auqaaf has simply failed to manage this treasure and encroachers creep up its every nook and corner like termite in an old building. Due to encroachments, it is hard even to walk through the bazaar, let alone driving a car.
A major portion of the land that this anti-encroachment drive will get back from illegal occupation will go to Auqaaf Department. Shopkeepers alleged the outgoing Auqaaf Chairman Siddiqul Farooq doled out shops and buildings to his favourites. They said he used to stage sit-ins in front of Lal Haveli, residence of Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid to distract attention from his shady property deals, resulting into mushrooming encroachments. The matter is in court where Farooq has denied all charges. One of his aides said that Farooq had taken a lot of land back from encroachers which is why this mafia is after him.
Rawalpindi Development Authority’s Demolition Squad head, who is leading the operation, told TNS on condition of anonymity that so far over 60,000 kanals of occupied land has been recovered in Punjab. “More and more occupied land is being vacated with each passing day.” He said National Highway Authority is clearing land on the GT Road whereas local governments are carrying out operations in cities.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has been taking keen interest in the anti-encroachment drive announcing in his speech on October 10, a day before the RDA operation, that the government will soon be building a land bank and all state land will be recovered from illegal occupants. Days earlier, he had announced that state land worth over Rs20 billion has been recovered in Islamabad. This is the economic aspect of the drive, which tells us that illegal occupation is a billion dollar industry that needs to be brought down.
State Minister for Interior Sheharyar Afridi oversaw the anti-encroachment drive in Islamabad and in its first phase illegal car showrooms, restaurants and a fast food outlet were demolished on Kashmir Highway. Residents were hopeful that Sector G-12 and F-12 will also be retrieved in this operation, touted as ruthless and indiscriminate.
Capital Development Authority (CDA) is eager to get these sectors back but its officials told TNS that the minister is holding back operation against illegal occupants of these sectors. They hint at political motives behind the minister’s decision. These sectors have not been designated as Katchi Abadis but the officials believe that even then their occupants will be accommodated in the schemes for Katchi Abadis.
Similarly, despite many notices by the CDA, work on a mega housing society, which is at the lap of picturesque Margalla Hills and is owned by a minister in Punjab, goes on unhindered. During the anti-encroachment operation in Jhelum, almost all illegal structures were erased from a road, but the house of a ruling party MNA who is relative of a sitting minister. Despite repeated attempts, Afridi was not available to comment on the matter. This is the political side of the drive that generates doubts in the minds of the masses.
Dr Sharafat A. Chaudhry, who authored a book titled Law and Development and is part of the Supreme Court body to review laws, said many people are complaining in Lahore and Gujranwala that they are being removed from the houses they have been living in for ages. He said living in a structure for ages doesn’t mean that you are entitled to own it. “State land is sold illegally with the involvement of revenue and court officials through many means but the basic entitlement papers always bear flaws and faults in such land transfers. Law is very clear about these matters and land is to be retrieved back to the state.”
On the question of human rights and the state’s responsibility to provide roof to all its subjects, Dr Chaudhry said that shelter is right of all citizens, whether they occupy state land or not. “This is a murky subject.”
Qaswar Abbas, district planning officer in Muzaffargarh, said, “You tell me if somebody occupies your land, what will you do? Will you let them keep it or get it back from them?” He said all provincial departments have coordinated to identify state land. “Notices were served to illegal occupants. Some of them did not receive them. Announcements were made from mosques to warn them of the operation. Ultimately, operation was carried out,” he said.