What’s in a name?

January 30, 2022

The Islamabad High Court has ordered the renaming of private housing societies that have been using the likeness and names of government institutions

What’s in a name?

The names of housing societies are being changed in Islamabad effective immediately.

“The process is not as simple as it might seem,” Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat, the Islamabad deputy commissioner, tells The News on Sunday. He has been tasked with renaming 24 housing societies bearing the names of government institutions. “It is not merely about names. One must also alter property records, domicile records and update ID cards of residents. Legal documents have to be updated and the update conveyed to one and all. This will take a year or so,” he said.

Why is there an urgency to rename these housing societies? It is because Islamabad High Court has ordered the change in a verdict against the housing societies it found were exploiting the names to give the wrong impression to unwary citizens.

Housing is a major issue for the people of Islamabad. Unlike other cities, every third person you come across will bemoan property prices and discuss good deals. People are either buying, selling or looking for advice to buy or sell plots or houses.

Pakistan is one of the most populated countries in the world. Islamabad is one of its fastest growing cities.

The State Bank of Pakistan reported in 2021 that urban housing demand was going up by 350,000 units every year. It added that posh cities were getting only 150,000 units per year, resulting in intensification of the housing problem and decline in the quality of lodging.

Additionally, there has been an increase in urban migration amongst young people who are moving to metropolitan cities for higher education and employment. Housing four of the ten top ranked universities in Pakistan, the city is like a magnet for the young. Due to lack of affordable housing, most of them live in informal settlements.

According to the data available to the World Bank, “Around 47 percent of the population is living in slums mostly built on parcels of government land.”

In Islamabad, the Capital Development Authority is the manager, planner and regulator of the city.

The CDA carved out sectors for housing but due to ill-planning has failed to fulfill the housing needs of a growing population. It has failed to develop many of the sectors marked in the master plan. The Ministry of Housing and Works has launched effective projects in some of these sectors but they are a small part of the solution to a growing problem.

Cashing in on this problem, a large number of private and cooperative housing societies have popped up left, right and centre. Zone IV and V have been hit the worst by these societies.

This is where the fat hits the fire. According to official data, the CDA currently has a list of 211 private housing societies in different zones of Islamabad. Only 64 of these societies are legal. Even some of the 64 legal housing societies are irregular to some degree. Some of the legal societies have expanded illegally to include more land.

A writ petition was filed in 2016 against the FIA Employees’ Cooperative Housing Society. In 2020, a single bench of Islamabad High Court comprising Chief Justice Ather Minallah heard the case against illegal housing societies. Similar cases were then clubbed together. During the hearing, the chief justice expressed dissatisfaction with Islamabad Housing Authority’s report pertaining to illegal housing projects undertaken by some of the state departments and agencies.

What’s in a name?

“Have you ever wondered why middle and working class people prefer to invest in private housing societies? They prefer private builders because the government housing schemes are a failure. Decades upon decades have passed but the city managers have failed to develop residential sectors mentioned in the master plan.

Last month, the court released a verdict. In this verdict, the court questioned: “Under which authority are the names of government departments being used?”

Chief Commissioner Amer Ali Ahmed then issued an order amending by-laws for cooperative societies. It stated that all 24 cooperative housing societies shall change their names within three weeks.

In the wake of these developments, a new debate has emerged in the real estate sector, as the court mentioned 24 housing schemes which were registered in the name of government departments.

Naveed Khan Niazi, president of the Property Dealers’ Association of Wapda Employees Cooperative Housing Society, also known as WAPDA Town, says: “It is unfortunate that the government doesn’t have a functional master plan for the fast growing city. Cooperative housing societies are increasing in number, even in the suburbs,” he said. According to Niazi, the real estate market attracts wealthy business people because the middle and working class prefer private societies to government ones. “Have you ever wondered why middle and working class people prefer to invest in private housing societies? They prefer private builders because the government housing schemes are a failure. Decades upon decades have passed but the city managers have failed to develop residential sectors mentioned in the master plan.”

He says that WAPDA Town exists in several cities under the same name. “Will the authorities change the name of all WAPDA Towns across Pakistan?” he asks. “All cooperative housing societies have builders’ and dealers’ associations. Almost in every private society, there are several such associations. They hold elections every year and the winning group works towards solving problems faced by the residents,” he says.

“Unfortunately, the government-developed housing sectors have no such system. The residents run from pillar to post with their complaints.

Currently, Pakistan needs six million houses according to Prime Minister Imran Khan. Private developers are purchasing lands on the outskirts of major cities city and starting their own projects,” he says.

What’s in a name?

Chaudhry Hammad Liaqut, a private builder, asks, “Why can’t the CDA and other authorities stop illegal housing projects before they even start?”

“Our institutions wake up only after a lot of people have invested in illegal projects. Illegal hotels and shopping malls built on plots dedicated for hotels are thriving in posh areas of Islamabad but no action is taken against them,” he says.

Niazi says the government should start a one-window operation to solve the housing issues. “The problem with government offices is that a legally valid file does not move and an illegal file moves up to get approval from the top boss. Money makes the mare go. If you are associated with the real estate market, you have to pay at every door,” he says.

He says many overseas Pakistanis often fall prey to illegal housing societies. “They see the logo and name of a society associated with a government institute and think of it as credible. There is a need to stop this racket,” he says.

Niazi says this has been a prominent trend for the past 20 years. He says cooperative housing societies have been growing rapidly and that strict regulation is needed to prevent scams. “Following the change in the names of housing societies, we have to reach out to thousands of allottees, many of whom are overseas. This is a tough job,” he says.

Islamabad Expressway is flanked by several illegal housing societies, some named after government institutions. Ghauri Town is considered the largest squatter settlement in the capital. There is a need to pull the plug on the growth of these societies. A plan must be implemented to provide houses to the people of Islamabad in a functional and environment-friendly manner. The court decision to rename housing societies will go a long way towards finding a solution to this problem.

The writer teaches development support communication at International Islamic University Islamabad. Twitter:  @HassanShehzad   Email: Hassan.shehzad@iiui.edu.pk

What’s in a name?