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May 10, 2015

Land scams and the academia

Opinion

 
May 10, 2015

Land has been - and continues to be - the most prized and coveted asset in Pakistan. Although much of the discourse on land ownership in Pakistan has been centred on the demise or otherwise of the feudal system, increasingly its importance is being recognised in the urban setting.
The rapid rise in urbanisation in Pakistan has been at the expense of massive and indiscriminate land acquisition, both by the state and the private sector. This has resulted in the forced dispossession and deprivation of small farmers, on the one hand, and enrichment of land grabbers, real-estate developers and construction contractors, on the other.
This trend is likely to be strengthened in the coming months and years with the infusion of massive Chinese funds to launch mega infrastructure projects for building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor from Kashgar to Gwadar and in the energy-producing and distribution sector. There is need for a careful, comprehensive, transparent and thorough debate by all ‘stakeholders’, including the landless, the homeless and the ‘power’-less, to arrive at an equitable and sustainable land policy to ensure that these grandiose plans are not stymied by a possible populist backlash against them. The ongoing unrest in India against the land acquisition bill being debated in parliament should serve to underline the need for caution, as well as a wake-up call.
The absence of a coherent land policy, especially in the context of rapidly rising urbanisation, has given rise to numerous land scams, involving both powerful institutions and individuals, who have managed to create an aura of sanctity and benevolence around themselves that protects them from public scrutiny. Land scams in urban areas have not only become a routine occurrence but have morphed into a sophisticated criminal art form and a thriving industry. In the current season of creating commissions on public interest issues, it would not be inappropriate to create an Urban Land

Grab Enquiry Commission, which would not only inquire into the various alleged land scams, but also give some guidelines for public policy against their recurrence.
Among the many such scandals is that surrounding the land belonging to the federally-funded Islamabad University (renamed Quaid-e-Azam University in 1976 to commemorate the birth centenary of the founder of the state), which was established in 1967 by Gen Ayub Khan as one of the hallmarks of his elitist regime. He ordered the CDA to acquire a sprawling 1,709 acres of land on the Margalla foothills for the establishment of his brainchild and had it included in the CDA’s Master Plan.
However, it wasn’t until 1976 that the land was transferred to the university, although the university did not get physical possession of the area even then. “In the absence of physical possession, the QAU administration did not secure the area by constructing boundary walls over 1,709 acres, which resulted in encroachment of its unattended land,” a QAU spokesman reportedly disclosed to an English-language daily. As a result, a large swathe of its land, measuring about 210 acres, or over 10 percent of its possession has so far reportedly been encroached by land grabbers. The university administration had sent a report about this encroachment to the Higher Education Commission seeking its help for retrieval.
This indeed is a grave matter that merits much more serious attention than that of other proposals disapproved in the past – such as the abortive teachers’ housing scheme, the offer by the late Dr Eqbal Ahmad’s now defunct Khaldunia University project to buy 75 acres of land at market prices. It is worth noting that the 300-acre staff housing project was later whittled down by 120 acres to accommodate the demands of the then sitting MNAs in 1996. It is likely that the ‘missing’ 210 acres of the QAU land has been encroached by politicos who were unsuccessful in getting the land allocated to them in 1996.
More importantly, the university does not own that land in any meaningful way. It has no autonomy – the creation of the HEC has obliterated the word from the academia’s lexicon – over the use, development and sale of the land it possesses. For these purposes, the university has to take the permission of the government and the CDA. If the university had real autonomy, it would not be facing the conundrum it seems to find itself in today.
The new vice-chancellor, Prof Javed Ashraf, an economist with considerable experience in managing university affairs in the US, seems to have been underwhelmed by the paucity of financial resources at the university’s disposal in the face of the challenges it faces to modernise and upgrade the antiquated physical infrastructure and scientific equipment that has been frozen in time virtually since its establishment nearly half a century ago.
Keen to make his mark early in his tenure, he seems tempted, among others, by a proposal to sell a piece of QAU land to the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), which itself has acquired the status of a university after moving to the Islamabad campus in 1972 from Dhaka as the bifurcated branch of a Ford-Foundation-funded research institute, originally established in Karachi in 1957.
PIDE is seeking from QAU the allocation of 15-16 acres of its land for construction of PIDE’s new campus in exchange for a handsome amount (stated to be around Rs. 500 million), along with the institute’s current building built with its own funds inside the main QAU campus in 1977. PIDE started academic activities in 2000 and was granted charter as a university six years later, after some resistance to the idea of creation of two universities on the same campus.
Initially started as a graduate school, like the QAU, PIDE is planning to open an undergraduate degree programme as well, for which it needs more space. PIDE, since its inception, has served as the research arm of the Planning Commission, which provides most of its funding and substantive leadership and direction. The minister of planning is the chancellor of the university.
The relationship between PIDE and the QAU has been problematic since the beginning, when the former moved to the University Campus in 1972. Initially, the two had a complementary, rather than a competitive relationship, with both working as arms of the Ministry of Education, with the hope that PIDE’s senior staff would assist in teaching courses at the university. However, later PIDE was taken over by the Planning Commission and PIDE became specialised in research activities. Since becoming a university, PIDE has entered into a competitive phase with QAU, which is likely to prove counterproductive to both. No wonder a majority of the senior faculty of QAU, as well as its syndicate, have rejected the proposal, causing some discomfiture and setback to the new VC, despite his obvious good intentions to revamp the university.
However, both institutions are public-funded and are formally autonomous and should be provided with reliable sources of funding to remain viable and expand in the directions in which their executive authorities wish to move, with the concurrence of their legislative and consultative bodies. The best course may be for both institutions to work towards an MoU for a long-term collaborative relationship of mutual benefit to both, rather than a short-term land-money swap, which is unbecoming to academic institutions.
Using its vast land resources, QAU could also collaborate with foreign universities and other donors to enter such fields as environment and sustainable agriculture, solar energy and technology parks to generate more funds and to turn its vast campus into a green belt beneath the Margallas, rather than the dull spectacle it now presents.
This incident underlines the need for a more sustainable way of funding higher education and to utilise public land resources in the public interest, rather than falling prey to land grabbers.

The writer is a former professor of economics of QAU and has had a long professional association with PIDE since the 1960s.
Email: [email protected]

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