The rising demand for housing in and around the capital has triggered off a race to develop land commercially through fair means or foul.
Murree tehsil is one of the worst hit areas in this regard where high-rise apartments and commercial buildings have mushroomed on community-owned land.
Known as shamlat, this land is the common property of villagers and the locals living in the vicinity — meant for grazing animals, building graveyards and as a source of water and wood.
Widespread development, surface runoff from snow melt and rainfall, the cutting down of trees and the addition of paved surfaces could all prove hazardous to the catchment areas for the Rawal, Simly and Mangla dams.
Pollution caused by sewage flowing down the hills remains a growing concern among residents who are surprised at the flouting of laws related to the Pakistan Environment Protection Act, 1997. Using his political clout, MNA Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has been able to somewhat reduce the mad rush of the wealthy from all over the country who are desirous of buying property for a house or a flat in Murree.
“Every piece of available land is not meant for development. Until 1999, only one no-objection certificate (NOC) for a housing society was granted by the interim government for Judicial Town. Following that scores of NOCs for housing societies were issued,” Abbasi said. “The Musharraf regime abolished the Murree-Kahuta Development Authority (MKDA) which restricted the construction of buildings, and presently there might be more buildings than trees in Murree.”
The land acquisition business is reputedly orchestrated by a mere handful of powerful individuals with links within the political, religious and ruling elites. They have contacts in the police department and act as subcontractors for almost every large property builder.
These have a strong network of ‘touts’ who keep an eye on ace plots and property to be captured. Then, there’s a second line of command that makes a meagre offer to the owners and has the purchase legalised. One of them is reputed to use trigger-happy fugitives from all over Punjab which come into action when people resist the offers made by the second line of command; such people are then subjected to the loss of land, police wrath and court hassles.
Yet there are no more than a dozen police complaints against such individuals. The widely held perception amongst people as well as parts of officialdom is that among the ringleaders of such activities are Malik Riaz, chairman of Bahria Town (Pvt) Ltd and land acquirer Taji Khokhar, who manipulate the system; nothing, however, has so far been proved in court.
One large private land development group in particular has become controversial because of its acquisitions. Local people have objections regarding the way the land has been acquired, although it is difficult for them to prove anything in court. They allege that the group grabs land with the help of frontmen, and that people have received hefty amounts for selling their own land as well as shamlat after manipulating documents.
An inquiry conducted on the directives of the Supreme Court by Mazhar Hussain Minhas, a district and sessions judge, Islamabad, in 2009-2010, stated that M/s Bahria Town used their own manpower to forcibly occupy lands which were not even acquired by DHA.
The inquiry report also mentions the names of police officers and the police station that covers a large rural area and states that the Islamabad police, particularly Sihala PS, was completely under the influence and control of Malik Riaz, chairman of Bahria Town.
The report stated, “Like the police, the revenue department is completely under the control of Malik Riaz. Revenue officers/officials of his choice are posted in the areas where housing projects of Bahria Town have been established, blindly following his dictates.”
Yet despite and scores of cases against Malik Riaz and Bahria Town in the apex court, there is no police record against him and the lack of strong evidence remains a serious challenge for the prosecutors.