While supporters hailed the decision as “the best news of the year,” others have condemned it as political victimisation
An abandoned, confiscated abode became the centre of controversy recently in Lahore. It became, very briefly, a refuge for the homeless, only for the step to be retraced.
Earlier this month, the Punjab government converted former finance minister Ishaq Dar’s five-kanal house into a Panahgah (shelter home) to accommodate at least 50 homeless people. The house, located in the commercially high-value Gulberg, was taken over in July last year by the city district government, after the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) seized all of Dar’s assets in connection with a corruption reference.
The Punjab government was unable to auction his house after the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a stay order on a petition filed by Dar’s wife. Assistant Commissioner Zeeshan Nasrullah Ranjha told local journalists that the IHC stay order didn’t restrain the government from establishing a Panahgah or using it for any other purpose in public interest.
On February 10, the Lahore High Court (LHC) issued a stay order against the conversion of the residence, once again hearing the petition of the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) leader’s wife. Barrister Ahmed Pansota says, “Government on the assumption that the property has been attached (under Section 88 (7) Cr PC and placed at the disposal of Punjab government) handed it over to the Social Welfare Department which in my view appears to be in violation of the Order dated 27.01.2020 of the Islamabad High Court. […] The law did not authorise the government to hand over its possession to a third party. The property cannot be utilised for any other purpose.”
Thus, after residing for less than a week in the chandelier-laden elaborate shelter house, the homeless were transferred to a container — temporary living quarters often associated with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf since the days of its infamous dharnas (sit-ins). The petitioner requested the court to declare the move as null and void. A signboard near the shelter house still gives directions to its former existence. The shelter is now expected to be built in a park opposite the house.
The three days from the announcement of the Panahgah to its evacuation saw a lot of partisan comment. While supporters of the government hailed the decision of conversion to shelter house as “the best news of the year,” not surprisingly, Ishaq Dar’s party PML-N condemned it as political victimisation. PML-N leader Senator Mushahidullah Khan remarked that “They [the PTI government] have indulged in petty matters — taking over Dar’s house, talking about Maryam Nawaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif’s platelets etc. On the other hand, the people are crying due to sky-rocketing prices of wheat flour, sugar etc.”
The PTI does have a history of converting previous government’s offices and residences for other purposes. On assuming power in 2018, the government almost immediately announced converting “palatial state buildings into revenue generating entities.”
Dar himself announced in a video message posted on PML-N’s official Twitter account that he would take the matter to court.
The PTI does have a history, in its short tenure, of converting government’s offices and residences for other purposes. On assuming power in 2018, the government almost immediately announced its decision to convert “palatial state buildings into revenue generating entities.” A committee decided to convert the Governors’ Houses into museums and art galleries, boutique hotels, tourist complexes, resort hotels and educational institutions. The State Guest House in Lahore and another historical building in Karachi were to be converted into five-star hotels.
Even the Prime Minister’s House in Islamabad was to be converted into a university. That could not be done because doing so would violate the master. However, in July last year, the federal cabinet made a specific change to the master plan, allowing the establishment of a university at the PM House.
Building shelter houses was another “mission” espoused by the government, long before the decision to convert Dar’s house into one. Shelter homes were to be built in Islamabad and Peshawar, on government properties, and rented buildings, with one home in Rawalpindi said to accommodate more than 6,000 people. But according to a report, PM Imran Khan’s key initiative of shelter homes named Panahgahs for the homeless has to be funded by local administration from its budget since the federal authority has not allocated funds for their operations.
No matter how noble the intentions, ground realities, make such initiatives. One wonders why in the impractical case of Ishaq Dar’s house, the government was not advised wisely on the legal status.
“It [conversion of Ishaq Dar’s house] was not a wise decision. It appears to have been taken without adverting to the legal provisions and case law on the subject,” says Barrister Pansota.
There are an estimated 20 million homeless people in Pakistan. Building shelters for them does seem a necessity to help alleviate poverty and homelessness in the country.