Abdul Karim waited in the heat outside the Supreme Court for his case to be heard. Sitting miles away from his village in Bahawalpur, the poor peasant was contesting his right over three kanals (0.375 acres) of land that had already been awarded to him through an administrative decision. He had tilled the land for years and he was deemed to be the rightful owner.
However, the land was subsequently transferred to Brigadier (Retd.) Muhammad Bashir, through another administrative order. The transfer of land to the army brigadier was part of the 33,866 acres of land given to the Army GHQ in 1993 in Bahawalpur by the provincial government. The Punjab government had transferred the land without checking its title. Out of the total land given to the army, the said brigadier got 396 kanals (49.5 acres) of land, out of which about three kanals belonged to Abdul Karim.
Brigadier Bashir contested Karim’s ownership in the High Court, but the court upheld Karim’s title. Not satisfied with the court’s decision, Bashir filed an appeal with the highest court in the land. The Supreme Court of Pakistan also upheld Abdul Karim’s ownership.
In its eagerness to favour military authorities, the district government representatives had given Abdul Karim’s land to the army. Moreover, the local administration sided with the brigadier to disprove the respondent’s claim over the stated land.
The Supreme Court admonished the district collector for acting capriciously and for arbitrarily transferring land that was marked as land not available for allotment. While upholding Abdul Karim’s right to cultivate the land, the court also reproached the retired brigadier for impinging upon the rights of a poor peasant. In a historic judgment passed in September 2003, the Supreme Court bench warned against greed and forcibly and illegally depriving poor people of their rights.
Amazingly, Abdul Karim received justice not because he had the means to take legal action, but because Brigadier Bashir wanted his land and took the case to court. It’s unlikely that this historic judgment will help many other poor villagers, though, as the only way for them to benefit from this landmark judgement would be to initiate expensive legal proceedings.
The people of the small fishing village of Mubarik were not as fortunate as Abdul Karim. Situated near the Sindh-Balochistan border, their village adjoining the sea was once their territory. For over five years now, they have watched as their land has been slowly pulled away from under their feet. Generations of their families have lived there peacefully as fishermen, but no longer. A few years back, the villagers found that they could no longer move freely on their own land. The Pakistan Navy (PN) ordered the residents of Mubarik village to limit themselves to a small area. But that wasn’t the only restriction. They were also told not to construct houses on the land because the adjoining land fell within the range of the navy’s target-practice range.
The villagers claim that the PN broke a promise and extended its presence beyond a point that was previously assured by the navy to be the limit of their expansion. In fact, the PN has continued to expand its presence despite the fact that there is no provision in the existing rules for a naval cantonment. Meanwhile, the uneducated villagers are unable to contest their rights: they neither know the law, nor have the money to take legal action.
They are not the only ones in this country in the same predicament. Up against elite groups, like the armed forces, poor villagers neither have the means nor the knowledge to defend their own property, the land they inhabit and cultivate. Despite the efforts of some parliamentarians to flag the issue of the military land ownership in the country, there is insufficient information available on the issue. However, one thing is clear: over the years, the armed forces have become major players in Pakistan’s real estate business.
The military, including its serving and retired members, own massive tracts of land in rural as well as urban centres. They believe that the distribution of land amongst military personnel, particularly within the various housing schemes, denotes the defence establishment’s superior capacity at managing resources. However, the mechanics behind the issue are not so simple. Is the allocation of military land nothing more than a tradition inherited from the British to reward defence services personnel? Or should the acquisition of land by the military be viewed in the larger perspective of the power the armed forces wield over the state and its resources?
Since the early 1950s, the military has acquired millions of acres of land throughout the country for distribution to serving and retired armed forces personnel. According to one estimate, the armed forces control about 12 million acres, constituting about 12 per cent of total state land. Out of this, 62 per cent is in the Punjab, 27 per cent in Sindh and 11 per cent in NWFP and Balochistan. About seven million acres of the total is agricultural land and has an estimated worth of Rs700 billion. Interestingly, only about 100,000 acres are directly controlled by the armed forces and its subsidiary companies, the Fauji Foundation, the AWT and the Bahria Foundation, and distributed amongst serving and retired personnel. The remainder was given (at highly subsidised rates) to army personnel as awards to be used for their personal gratification.
Granting agricultural land as a reward to individuals is a tradition inherited from the British. The Punjab Alienation of Land Act, 1900 ensured the use of canal colony land as a means to reward those serving British interests. According to Imran Ali, professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, in his book, The Punjab Under Imperialism, land was granted to indigenous communities under various schemes, such as offering land grants to raise horses that could then be acquired by the British cavalry. Following the principle of rewarding the ‘faithful,’ the Alienation of Land Act specifically stipulated allocation of 10 per cent of colonised land to the armed forces. This process of land development was incorporated later in another law known as the Colonisation of Land Act, 1912, which was updated by the Pakistan government in 1965. The law had a feudal underpinning and was based on perpetuating various local social classes that would guarantee the interests of the imperial masters. Today, the land distribution policy is still deeply rooted in this colonial logic, with the military monopolising the state’s resources and continuing to offer land in exchange for allegiance to the state. Moreover, this policy is central to the problematic centre-provinces relations. The smaller provinces, in particular, are wary of the land distribution scheme that empowers Punjab versus other provinces.
For decades, land has been transferred to military personnel under the aforementioned law. The military was given 10 per cent of the approximately nine million acres of land reclaimed due to the construction of the Kotri, Guddu and Ghulam Mohammad barrages in Sindh. The government also gave land to some senior civil bureaucrats, who were the military regime’s partners. Some of the prominent beneficiaries of the land reclamation scheme from the armed forces included General Ayub Khan (247 acres), General Muhammad Musa (250 acres), and Maj. General Umrao Khan (246 acres). After the military’s takeover in October 1958, more land was allotted to army officers in the Guddu Barrage area. Also, agricultural land was given in the Punjab. What is even more important, however, is the fact that the land alloted to military officers was developed with foreign aid — military and economic aid from the US. Reportedly, the finance minister of Punjab, Nawab Iftikhar Hussain Mamdot, justified the use of foreign aid for land development because the money was meant for the army.
The stated logic says that armed forces personnel will be more dedicated towards developing land. This, however, has not been the case. In south Punjab, where land is often awarded to officers and soldiers that do not hail from the area, the tendency is to engage in absentee landlordism or sell the land to the highest bidder. The buyers are usually local landlords. Thus, there is no incentive to reduce the strength of the big landlords, a major problem associated with the continuation of feudalism in the country. Naturally, many big farmers do not object to the military’s rural land acquisition.
However, the distribution of land alone does not empower people unless they are also provided access to three additional resources: water, farm-to-market roads and equipment to develop the land. Such facilities are only provided to senior military officers or the civil bureaucracy. In the case of south Punjab, senior military officers monopolise the three resources to their advantage. A number of army, naval and air chiefs even had serving armed forces personnel guard their lands. They, like the big land owners, use influence to gain access to the road networks and water. Lower ranking soldiers tend to leave their lands barren or sell them to the local landlords. In any case, the senior officers get more land than the junior officers and the jawans.
Any way one looks at it, this monopolisation of resources is unfair in a country where there are about 30 million landless peasants. Obviously, providing land to the landless and empowering them through provision of land developmental facilities has not been a priority of the state. In any case, as pointed out by economist Akbar Zaidi in his book, Issues in Pakistan’s Economy, the land reforms during the Ayub and Bhutto eras did not benefit the poor. About 39 per cent of the land recovered during the Bhutto land reforms was never distributed among the landless.
The military’s control of land feeds the largest social injustice in the country: widespread poverty. Like the feudal class, the military has been known to use its power to redistribute land amongst its own without any regard for the country’s poor ethnic populations. In Bahawalpur, there are instances when land developed through years of hard work by landless peasants has been snatched away for distribution to the military bureaucracy. In the tehsil of Nawazabad, the government awarded about 2,500 acres to various military personnel. Hundreds of landless peasants were evicted from state lands after occupying it for years without incident. In an interview, these peasants protested against being evicted from the land they had partially developed and reclaimed from the desert without even a fair hearing. When the peasants took their case to court, junior military officers threatened them, ridiculed the law and advised the peasants that even the courts could not save them from the army’s authority. To the villagers of Nawazabad, there was no difference between the dominant feudal lords and the praetorian military. One local woman bitterly demanded, “If there is no place for us here then [the authorities] should put us on a truck and drop us in India.”
The case of Nawazabad is not an anomaly. Other places and people have also experienced the use of force by the military to obtain land for personal or operational purposes. In Yunisabad, near Karachi, the Pakistan Navy took forcible possession of the floating jetty — and the land on which it was built — that belonged to the village and was used to transport locals, especially the sick. For villagers from nearby Shamspir, the jetty was their only access point to land. A writ petition was filed with the Sindh High Court against the “illegal act of the navy” and several letters were written to the district administration highlighting human rights abuses by the PN.
Reportedly, there were occasions where local villagers were harassed and beaten up. The Navy failed to honour the court order not to interfere with public traffic.
Across the country, there are many examples of the military wielding absolute authority to suppress landless peasants in areas where they directly control the land. In Okara, a conflict ensued between local tenants and the army that had unilaterally decided to change the terms of contract from share-cropping to rent-in-cash. While share-cropping pertains to an arrangement whereby the tenants share both the input and the output with the owner or whoever controls the land, the rent-in-cash arrangement dictates that land is cultivated in exchange for money, or rent. The additional benefit of share-cropping to the tenant is that his right over the land is recognised by law. The Okara farm tenants, who had resided on the land and were responsible for tilling it, feared the new system of contract would empower the army, who were not even the owners of the land, to displace the poor tenants from their homes.
The Okara farms are part of the military farms group, Okara and Renala, which comprise 16,627 acres of land consisting of two dairy farms, seven military (oat-hay) farms and 22 villages. The prime proprietor is evidently the Punjab government, which leases the land to other people or institutions. In this particular case, the army had changed the terms of contract for land it did not own. Moreover, the land lease had expired before Partition in 1947 not to be renewed again. To enforce its authority, the Rangers besieged the villages twice, imposed curfew, restricted freedom of movement, stopped supply of medicine, food and vegetables, and used numerous other pressure tactics. The report of Human Rights Watch has detailed testimonials of villagers victimised by the military authorities that were generally dismissive of the protest. Army personnel claimed that, rather than being a human rights issue, this was a local law and order issue incited by some NGOs.
Commenting on the Okara farms case, the Director-General, Inter-Services Press Relations (ISPR), Maj. General Shaukat Sultan, said, “The needs of the army will be decided by the army itself, and/or the government will decide this. Nobody [else] has the right to say what the army can do with 5,000 acres or 17,000 acres. The needs of the army will be determined by the army itself.”
However, the Okara incident was not an issue of how the army determined the usage of its land. This, like many other cases, is about the illegal use of military authority to change the legal nature of the land under its control. The army follows the practice of changing the usage of A-1 land specifically meant for operational purposes, to profit-making or for personal gratification of the officer cadre and other elite. In the Punjab, farm land has been turned into golf courses and residential housing schemes. Debates in Parliament over the past couple of years have shown that some camping grounds that the army had arbitrarily turned into golf courses were not designed for public use, but only to please a select few.
In its official response to parliamentary questions regarding the misuse of state land by the military, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) did not challenge the army’s authority. The ministry upheld the army’s jurisdiction over land under its control. This was done in other cases as well, such as the conversion of the firing range in Nowshehra into a citrus farm. The army vociferously defends its power over these assets and even controls information regarding these agricultural assets.
Since 9/11, there has been a noticeable boom in the value of urban real estate in the country. One of the largest beneficiaries, of course, is the military, which has engaged in the practice of converting land titles from state land to private property. It does this via two methods.
Firstly, there is the conversion of state land for private usage. A large amount of state land designated as A-1 land in various cantonments is distributed to military personnel. Here, it must be mentioned that the beneficiaries are the officers and not the soldiers. The 27 housing schemes built on state land in different parts of the country are reserved for the officer cadre, not the jawans.
The practice of urban land grabbing began soon after 1947 when military officers acquired evacuee property in the cantonment areas. During the days of the British, all cantonments were private property or owned by the provincial governments. It was mostly the land where the barracks were built that was owned by the MoD. The officers acquired the land on a transferable lease for a period of 99 years. The 99-year lease is extendable, especially in cases where military officers own the property.
According to a report submitted by the MoD to the Senate, about 78,292 square yards, or16.3 acres, totalling 130 residential plots, were given to an equal number of officers in different cities in a period from October 1999 to 2003. The report highlighted a series of cases where residential plots were carved out of state land meant for operational purposes. The cities included Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi, as well as smaller towns such as Kharian and Jhelum. The ranks of the beneficiaries varied from a full general to a captain. Quantitatively, the distribution was fairly even, with senior, middle-ranking and junior officers getting 46, 36 and 48 plots respectively. However, the plot sizes for senior officers were much bigger than what junior officers received. Generals of all categories received plots of 800 square yards, while plot sizes for captains were less than 500 square yards.
The cantonment area in Lahore, which, up until the early 1980s, comprised a large segment of army training grounds and firing ranges, was almost entirely converted into a residential area. In effect, army exercise and training grounds were converted from public to private use without the consent of the government or the public for whose safety the land was initially provided. This was, of course, done through an internal decision-making process rather than through consultations with the government. In fact, a major complaint is that decisions involving major military housing projects are always made when Parliament is not in session.
Such arbitrary redistribution raises concerns about misuse of state land, especially cantonment land. Major cantonments include Lahore (12,000 acres), Karachi (12,000 acres), Rawalpindi (8,000 acres), Kamra (3,500 acres), Taxila (2,500 acres), Peshawar (4,000 acres) and Quetta (2,500 acres). The fear is that most will ultimately be commercialised. In fact, Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Peshawar cantonments are no longer restricted army areas. Much property has already been resold to civilians. In Lahore, officers were given ownership of large residential properties in the cantonment area. A conservative estimate of the worth of the cantonment land in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta is approximately 300 billion rupees.
The transfer of one portion of Karachi’s National Stadium to the Karachi Cantonment Board is a prime example of military land-grabbing. The Corps Commander Mangla, Lt. General Tauqeer Zia, who was also the Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Control Board (PCCB), was responsible for transferring the said land during his tenure as head of the PCCB. The financial dividends were superb. A minimum investment of 600,000 rupees netted a profit of about 15 million in a quick 60 to 90 days. Such manipulative capacity is only available to the most influential institutions or individuals in the country.
President Pervez Musharraf, however, claims that all is fair in real estate and military governance: “So, what is the problem if they [the armed forces] are contributing to town development here, or anywhere in Pakistan, for that matter? In Lahore, in Rawalpindi — their output is the best. The defence societies everywhere are the top societies of Pakistan…now, why are we jealous of this? Why are we jealous if somebody gets a piece of land, a kanal of land, cheap when it was initially, and because of the good work done by the society, the price rises by 100 times, and the man then earns some money. What is the problem? Why are we jealous of this? There’s no problem at all.”
The General conveniently forgot a certain key fact. The officer cadre pays minimum charges for this urban property. For housing schemes built on state land, in particular, the deduction from the salaries of officers goes towards subsidising construction. The officers are charged a minimal price for the value of the land itself — nothing even remotely close to the market value. It must be noted that contrary to the view that urban land is given when the city is underdeveloped, the land in large urban centres of Karachi and Lahore were given long after the cantonment areas had been developed and property prices had appreciated.
The military land manual is very specific about the use of the land falling in the cantonments or around it. There are about seven types of land managed by the Department of Military Lands and Cantonments. Most of the land mentioned is A-1. This category of land is defined as land meant purely for military purpose such as fortification, barracks, stores, arsenals, aerodromes, housing for military, parade grounds, military recreation grounds, rifle ranges, grass and dairy farms, brick fields, hospitals and gardens for use by the armed forces. Then there is A-2 category of land not actually used or occupied by the military, but used for non-essential activities such as recreation. The ‘B’ type lands are again divided into four sub-categories: B-1, B-2, B-3 and B-4. The B-1 type lands are owned and controlled by the federal government but used for churches, mosques, cemeteries and other ecclesiastical affairs. B-2, on the other hand, is owned by the provincial government and used to generate revenue. The last type, B-3, is private land, but where bazaars, religious buildings, or communal graveyards can also be built. The military land manual stipulates due compensation to the owner in case of acquisition of land by the government. B-4 comprises all such land not falling in any of the above three types. Finally, there is ‘C’ class and that contains drains and roadside plots. The categorisation of the land cannot be changed without the authority of the actual owner. That, in any case, is not a major issue. Given the military’s power, such transformation of land usage has never been seriously challenged.
Interestingly, senior generals tend to ignore the legal debate. Instead, they believe that the armed forces have a right to use the land under their control in whatever manner the organisation deems fit. In the words of Maj. General Shaukat Sultan, “We don’t build houses or other projects on state land but on military land.” The general seems conveniently oblivious to the fact that all military land is essentially state land with specific rules governing its usage.
Consequently, most major cantonments have got into the habit of making markets and commercial plazas on state land for lease. Several senior retired generals have justified these ventures on the grounds that other armed forces, such as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), are also involved in profit-making ventures. The PLA, however, was ordered to divest its commercial interests in 1998 to restore professionalism in the armed forces. Moreover, unlike the Pakistan military, the Chinese military is a revolutionary force that had to make ‘both ends meet’ since Beijing did not provide it with the requisite financial resources.
The defence housing authorities in major cities, or the housing schemes run by the Bahria and Fauji Foundations, represent yet another method of dabbling in real estate. Contrary to the view held by military personnel that these housing schemes are welfare or private ventures that basically show the superior management skills of the armed forces, there is a lot of manipulation involved in the acquisition of land. The DHA in Lahore, which came under a lot of flak due to the stories of rampant corruption, acquired land through offering plots to the owners of farm land. Of course, the owners of the land had to pay development charges to get ownership of the newly developed urban property. The DHA, meanwhile, did not have to pay money to purchase the land.
In the ever-growing DHA in Rawalpindi, there were even reports of the owners being forced to sell their land. The tehsil office refused to issue land revenue documents to the owners even six months before the land was finally purchased for the extension of the DHA, which is now worth billions of rupees. The dividends are phenomenal. In the case of DHA, Rawalpindi, land totaling 3,375 acres was acquired at a total cost of about Rs11 billion and later sold for approximately Rs135 billion.
However, the infrastructure of these elite schemes is not integrated with planning in the rest of the town. The disparity between elite versus ordinary urban planning is noticeable. It could be argued that such disparities are found across the world, but it becomes more pronounced where elite structures are combined with disproportional political power. While rural areas are being lost to urban centres, there is no effort to create opportunities for the lower middle or the middle class. These housing schemes create opportunities for the elite to make money rather than generate employment opportunities for other social classes. The elite town schemes are primarily residential areas with no provision for industrial or business infrastructure. Moreover, such schemes do not solve the shortage of six million houses presently required in the country, but denote financial investment aimed at filling the pockets of those who have the money to invest.
Referring to the compensation of land, private owners would, perhaps, consider themselves relatively lucky as compared to the state itself. The governments have not been able to exercise control over the transfer of land to the military at very low compensation. Referring to agricultural land, it is usually acquired at the rate of Rs 50 per acre. Similarly, very little is paid in the urban centres.
One of the most recent examples pertains to the acquisition of 1,165 acres of land in 2005 for the Army’s GHQ in Islamabad. The land was acquired at the throwaway price of Rs 40 per square yard, which, as the MoD clarified, was legally considered the right compensation for acquisition of land for official purposes. Compensation at market rates would bloat the cost substantially.
It is also worth remembering that the transfer of land to the military deprives the state of a valuable asset. The transfer of state land to individuals, especially, constitutes an expensive subsidy from the state to the defence sector that is never recorded in the financial books.
Surely, it will be difficult to force the senior generals to give up subsidies. In fact, the issue of strengthening democracy in the country is pegged to the question of the economic interests of the senior echelons of the defence services, which have grown fat on such economic benefits.
Urban and rural real estate is one sector used for personal gratification. The military’s perspective is that it uses a system of merit to reward lands to individuals. This might be true, but the system does not explain how most senior officers end up piling up numerous properties worth millions of rupees.
The power and authority of the armed forces is central to the redistribution of land, while its political power is central to acquiring state land or private property. Given the history of land distribution in the country, it can be argued that the 93 million acres of state land are under constant threat of occupation by the military and other elite groups.
Monopolisation of state land by a favoured few is counter-productive to the development of the state and the well-being of the general public. This is an issue that demands a serious debate and re-consideration of policies related to the distribution of national resources.
In the historic Abdul Karim Supreme Court judgement, the judges endorsed the following quotation from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and cautioned against accumulation of property in the hands of a few:
“And the great owner, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands, it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on.”
While Abdul Karim got justice, this decision of the Supreme Court was not used as a precedence to be applied in other cases as well.
Note: This article originally published here.