Land is money. Land is power. Land is control. Land is status. Land is addiction. Owning land is perhaps the biggest symbol of ruling authority. From countries invading another country to occupy foreign land to businessmen owning vast property resources, land has been a signal of your wealth and power. In Pakistan, land ownership had become the best business in the last few decades. Every penny saved got invested in some society file or the other. Property dealers flourished and land prices, especially in key locations, gave over 100% returns in a short time. Money flows where it gets the best returns. Best returns attract best scams too.
The mushrooming of the housing societies has created a flow of money into this sector that has attracted professional bodies, army and businessmen to run this business as none else. Try to compare a business factory with an investment in land ownership. An average business hardly earns 10% return annually, that too after a lot of effort and risks. The same money in a few nice pieces of land with zero effort and minimum risk earns 40 % plus return. That is why we see in the last two decades a gold rush in this sector. From the DHAs to the Bahrias housing societies are the name of the game.
Easy money is always a magnet to crime. The crooked mind thinks of the overnight rich strategy. That is either robbing people of their money or robbing people of their land. This easy and instant recipe of richness attracted many robber barons. In Pakistan, the words “land mafia” have been common for quite some time. The “land mafia” has some key characteristics that have become visible with passage of time:
Societies destroy Society-In Pakistan the housing societies are the hub of corrupt business deals. They present a sham face of organized property dealing with offices and names, etc. Innocent people especially overseas Pakistanis invest their hard owned money in them only to be defrauded by these fake societies. These societies have professional land snoopers sniffing for ideal targets. Land lying in the name of ordinary public in potential areas with little supervision is encroached and grabbed. The poor owners are either deprived through the patwari pay-off network of ownership or simply left to lower courts to trash them into nothings. According to official documents, out of a total of 8,767 housing societies, 6,000 are not registered with the concerned institutions. Over 4,000 fraud and corruption cases are registered against 500 societies with no action. These cases of fraud amount to more than Rs300 billion.
Shareholders in Schemes-The question arises as to why they have mushroomed to this level. The answer is that they are a joint venture between politicians, bureaucrats and shady businesses. It requires the government and the corrupt to be in cahoots to create this abysmal network of governance, bending of rules and apathetic law enforcement to create an unchecked market of thousands of fraudulent societies.
Sicilian mafia networks- Justice Asif Khosa in his landmark Panama Leaks judgement said that these politicians operate like a Sicilian mafia. The Sicilian mafia were the original italian gangsters that infiltrated all institutions that matter. They would be linked with top politicians or will be members of important political forums. They would have the police on their payroll and would heavily pay off media to stifle news against them. Similarly, the land mafia in Pakistan has traditionally worked as sponsors of political top guns. The politicians also create their own narrative by blessing some columnists, anchors and so called intellectuals with high flying posts like PCB, PTV, PEMRA, etc., to rubbish any report against them. The police, the judiciary, the bureaucracy are all part of the Sicilian mafia. They all get shares either in the housing society or in postings and transfers or in cash.
Easy money business has really been at the cost of industrialization and sustainable development of Pakistan. When money is being diverted from businesses that expand job bases and create more room for development to dead real estate buying and selling the economy becomes stale and staid. That is why Pakistani exports have not developed. That is why Pakistani job market is so dry. That is why brain-drain has taken place in Pakistan. That is why a culture of instant gratification has flourished. That is why there is hardly any vision and foresight into how to make Pakistan competitive. It is these landed barons who by dint of their easy money buy politicians, police, MNAs, etc., to create a huge divide of haves and have-nots. Trump was a real estate Mughal and he ended up protecting it more than America. His daughter and son in law became deal dealers. Similarly, rulers in Pakistan have family holdings in politics and in business too.
The operation against land mafia is great but testing. It is going to test the will of the government to take it through without bias and despite political and legal complexities and intrigue. It is going to test the fragility of the system especially in the law enforcement agencies to be able to withstand the temptations of being a party or a silent onlooker to it. It is going to test the mettle of the land mafia to push, react, respond, bulldoze and sustain their operation grab and stampede. And most of all it is going to test the character of the public to support, resist and stand united against this mafia that has shattered the moral fabric of the society.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021