Tuesday June 06, 2023

Azmat likely to head commission for regularising illegal societies

The former SC judge will likely head the commission set up to regularize more than 6000 illegal housing societies in Punjab

June 16, 2021
Azmat likely to head commission for regularising illegal societies
 Justice (R) Azmat Saeed Sheikh.

ISLAMABAD: Another job is awaiting Justice (R) Azmat Saeed Sheikh. He will likely head the commission set up to regularize more than 6000 illegal housing societies in Punjab, a controversial move which is dubbed as an NRO to land mafia.

On the direction of federal government, Punjab haphazardly promulgated “The Punjab Commission for Regularization of Irregular Housing Schemes Ordinance 2021” in April this year to regularize housing schemes, carrying out the entire process without proper consultation. The relevant departments were also not taken into the confidence.

The Ordinance was drafted in consultation with a key constitutional office-bearer to avert any legal crisis should the legislation is challenged in any court of law. It was, therefore, decided that a retired judge of the Supreme Court or Lahore High Court would head the commission. Now, there are competing forces at work to induct the person of choice, according to the insider.

While federal government wants Azmat Saeed Sheikh to head the commission, a constitutional office-bearer in Lahore has recommended the name of Justice (R) Ali Akbar Qureshi, a retired judge of the Lahore High Court. However, it is learnt, Azamt Saeed Sheikh is likely to prevail. He has also suggested some changes in the ordinance. For example, he wants the word “irregular” removed from the title so that the law does not have a negative connotation. Other changes have also been suggested. Due to the foregoing, a summary has been routed through the provincial cabinet for the ratification ahead of the re-promulgation of the Ordinance.

When the Ordinance was promulgated in April, the entire process was conducted in a hush-hush manner as government officials were forced to do it without much deliberation while a constitutional officer was instrumental in giving final touches to the draft and consent of the provincial cabinet was secured by circulating the draft. Several ministers related to the subject matter opted to abstain from voting. Their silence was construed as consent. One minister told The News he didn’t receive any summary seeking his comment.

The Ordinance has been promulgated in an apparent attempt to give a clean chit to the housing societies by levying two percent of the residential value on the non-conforming use of land. “It is a kind of blank cheque at 2% penalty,” said an official privy to the subject matter.

According to him, there are more than 6,000 illegal housing societies; 1,500 of them fall in the purview of development authorities such as Lahore Development Authority, Rawalpindi Development Authority, Faisalabad Development Authority, Gujranwala Development Authority and Multan Development Authority etc. Remaining are in the purview of district governments and municipal corporations.

If internal official correspondence is taken a guide, this process was initiated by the Chief Minister Punjab, who is also the minister in-charge of local government. The process was supported by the federal government which was so eager to see it translating into reality that the approval from cabinet was sought through the circulation of the draft as the update in this regard was “to be placed before the Prime Minister of Pakistan,” and it was promulgated through Ordinance because the Punjab Assembly was not in session. This is despite the fact the issue of illegal housing society is old and any legislation in this respect could wait for the Assembly session. A leading constitutional office-bearer, it has been learnt, gave final shape to the draft; although it was the job of the executive branch.

The Punjab Commission for Regularization of Irregular Housing Schemes, according to the Ordinance, will have a retired judge of the Supreme Court or of a High Court as its Chairperson who will be appointed in consultation with the Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court. As many as four members will also form part of the Commission — a town planner, a civil engineer, an environmental expert and a legal expert. While the Chairperson will be nominated by the Chief Justice, the provincial government will nominate the members.

Reading through the official documents, it appears the federal and provincial governments were on the same page. The concerns about irregular housing societies were raised by Lt. Gen. (R) Anwar Ali Hyder, Chairman Naya Pakistan Housing & Development Authority during National Coordination Committee meeting held on February 23 this year wherein Chief Secretary Punjab proposed the setting up of a commission, and subsequently the Local Government Department prepared a draft in no time that was vetted by the Law Ministry.

It became a matter of such an urgent nature that the CM Buzdar was “pleased to desire that the instant matter may be placed before the Provincial Cabinet, through circulation for the consideration/approval” as the “update regarding the establishment of the Commission…is to be placed before the Prime Minister of Pakistan.”

As the summary was circulated to secure the consent of the Cabinet, several ministers abstained from giving their mind. Included among them were ministers whose departments were related to the subject matter like Finance, Revenue, Environment, Transport as well as Communication & Works.

The News tried to reach several of them in April but could only be able to speak to the Revenue Minister, Malik Muhammad Anwar. His response was rather shocking. “I haven’t received any such summary,” he said which meant he was kept in the dark. He said it might have been received by his staff and he would return after checking with them. He didn’t return.

The News also tried in vain to reach the Environment Minister Muhammad Rizwan. Aleem Khan, Senior Minister of Punjab and a property tycoon on his own right, also abstained from voting on the summary, according to the official record available with The News. Whether it was intentional to keep the record “straight” or he was opposed to the move remains to be explored.

For that purpose, the government has interpreted silence as consent of the ministers who didn’t answer in the mandatory time period. “As the mandatory time period has elapsed and no observation/objection has been received from any Minister, it may be deemed that all Ministers accept the recommendations contained in the summary,” reads a summary prepared for the Chief Minister Punjab.