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March 15, 2019

Protecting the rural


March 15, 2019

Prime Minister Imran Khan recently spoke about the acquisition of rural land for urban housing and land speculation, which does not seem to have been tackled by the governments till now. Over the last two decades, both state-sector organisations and private developers looking to make a quick buck have decided to take away agricultural land and convert it into urban housing schemes. These schemes have already converted hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land in big metropolises, such as Lahore and Karachi, as well as in the outskirts of many smaller cities scattered across the landscape. Many of the victims of this land grab are small farmers, who are not only inadequately compensated most of the time, but who also lose their source of livelihood. PM Khan rightfully noted in his speech at the launch of the Naya Pakistan Housing Program that these land acquisitions are a threat to Pakistan’s food security. With an ever-expanding population, Pakistan needs more, not less, agricultural land. Instead, we are seeing more and more lush green farmlands converted into barren landscapes, waiting for someone to build a home.

The current government has made a bold promise to tackle this issue. The prime minister has promised a ban on all urban housing projects that involve the takeover of rural land. This is all wonderful on paper, but the question is: how will the government manage to rein in the public and private sectors on this issue, especially in view of the fact that some of the biggest rural land conversion projects have powerful patrons? Private developers are often following suit in a strategy that was initiated by the state sector.

Farmers have taken to protesting against the creation of such schemes, but they have not been taken seriously. In Lahore, the now troubled LDA City housing scheme launched by the Punjab government was resisted by tens of thousands of farmers, who got the scheme cancelled in 2011. It was revived a few years later and is one of the reasons that the former Punjab chief minister is in trouble with NAB. There is little doubt that public-sector involvement in the issue has been about minting money at the highest levels of government. While there is a justifiable demand for more urban housing, much of the conversion of rural land into urban has been for purely speculative purposes. Often land acquisitions as well as the development of the schemes are in contravention of existing laws, but that has not stopped the acquisition of agricultural land for urbanisation and profit-making. The PM has struck the right note in promising to address the issue, but it will require strong will on the part of the government and the reining in of both the public and private sectors for this to be possible.

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