The anti- encroachment drive has recovered state lands but at the same time resulted in loss of shelter and livelihood for countless poor. Is there a settlement plan for them?
The drive against encroachments on state lands is in full swing all over the country. The encroachers who were in possession of these lands for decades didn’t expect that this time there would be little or no relief for them.
Though the new PTI government claims credit for taking such elements head-on, many believe that the real thrust has come from the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP).
The affectees who would earlier get relief due to their links with politicians and staff of concerned departments are unable to find similar favours, as the whole process is being monitored closely by the apex court.
However, while there is support for action against powerful land grabbers, the state machinery is being criticised as well for destroying stalls, kiosks, and temporary settlements of small-time traders and vendors. At some locations, the houses of people from low-income groups have simply been demolished. These people had not occupied the state land and built their houses on it but purchased land from others without knowing this would be razed to the ground one day.
Amazingly, a large number of these houses had electricity and gas connections provided by the concerned utility companies which made these people believe there was nothing wrong with their properties.
Just like in other parts of the country, Lahore is seeing an anti-encroachment drive launched aggressively by the district administration and other concerned departments including the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), the Walled City Lahore Authority (WCLA), and the forest department. The target is to retrieve 31,687 kanals of state land owned by the Board of Revenue (BoR), 35-acre land of forest department, eight plots within the Walled City, 636 kanals of land belonging to the LDA, and 32 plots worth two billion rupees that are the property of the Metropolitan Corporation Lahore (MCL).
The anti-encroachment drive that was launched with full vigour early this month had to be halted in Punjab prior to the by-elections. The reason offered by the government circles was that there was shortage of staff because human resource had to be deputed for holding by-elections and maintenance of law and order in the constituencies.
On the other hand, the opposition claims that the drive was halted as it had estranged prospective voters who were disturbed by the large-scale displacements of people.
The drive has been launched once again, and there are concerns that need to be addressed. For example, the Pakistan Industrial & Traders Association Front (PIAF) Chairman Mian Nauman Kabir complains that the business community of Lahore has not been taken on board despite the fact that it has approached the concerned authorities a number of times.
Kabir says the teams arrive at the sites without prior intimation and start to demolish the structures as per the maps that they possess. "In the process, the parts of structures that are not encroachments are also demolished. Besides, damages are caused to the buildings and valuables lying there."
Kabir also reveals that the PIAF has requested the district administration to share details of encroachments so that they can ask the traders to remove them voluntarily and/or shift their valuables. "Unfortunately, many people come to know about the encroachments on the very day the demolition squad arrives.
"A large number of poor vendors have become victims of this [anti-encroachment drive]," he adds. "The worst part is that their structures and stocks have been destroyed in the process."
When approached for comments, the focal person at the City District Government Lahore (CDGL), not wanting to be named, rejected the allegations and said that the encroachers had been issued notices well ahead of the deadline.
The demolition squad takes action only when the time granted for corrective action has lapsed, he added.
He also said that the action against encroachments in wholesale markets was just one part of the campaign that also aims to recover encroached lands originally owned by the forest department, Auqaf department, Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) and others. During the action, 338 illegal livestock sheds and around 157 kanals of land in Changa Manga forest have also been retrieved, he said.
The CDGL person agreed that many people had been duped into buying many illegal properties because the concerned departments had never acted against them, but added that "this not mean they shall not be proceeded against even now. In future, these recovered properties shall be properly mapped and saved from illegal occupation with the help of technology such as Google maps and Global Positioning System (GPS)."
Talking about the poor sufferers, he said the law had to be implemented across the board.
Awami Workers’ Party (AWP) leader Farooq Tariq does not buy the argument. He says, "The new PTI government which has failed to deliver on many counts, wants to show its power through use of brute force. It is using state machinery to deprive the poor of their livelihood and shelter while their head lives in a huge house that is yet to be regularised.
"Can the state machinery dare to raze this to the ground?" he asks.
Tariq also says that he knows many people whose small houses in Harbanspura and along the railway line have been demolished. "They had purchased these with their life-time savings but now they have nowhere to go. Wouldn’t it have been better if the government had thought about a resettlement plan for these people?"
The LDA spokesman shares that the authority has focused mainly on the recovery of 636 kanals of land that had been taken possession of illegally. "The occupants took control of these lands and prepared fake documents to get the court stays in their favour. Many a time, the authority tried to get these lands vacated but the people enjoyed the support of the influentials and did not think twice before opening fire on the teams going there to evict them.
"The authority could take aggressive action when the CJP asked it to evict Mansha Bomb [a land grabber in Lahore] from the occupied land, and others occupying state land. This guy had occupied 37 plots owned by the LDA and 39 that the authority had sold to buyers."
He also says that they are lenient with the inhabitants of the kachi abadis, and are not evicting them from their settlements purely on humanitarian grounds.