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On the evening of March 11 – the Zalikhel and Dotani tribe of South Waziristan lost two more young men in an ongoing crossfire over the disputed communal land in Wana Tehsil. The conflict, which started last month has already taken five lives and left several injured. Several houses were set ablaze and hundreds of people from both tribes have taken positions on the mountain tops and homes against each other. The elders of the area fear for more lives if this is not taken seriously by the government.

In the last two months only, ten people have been killed and at least 15 have been injured over the land disputes, said Noor Ali, a local journalist from South Waziristan.

“There is not a single-family in South Waziristan or in the entire tribal region that is not dealing with the land disputes currently,” he said.

Noor Ali added that the problems of the people only got highlighted once the merger happened and there are a lot of expectations from the government to intervene and settle the long-standing disputes.

Also, in some parts of the Merged Areas (MAs), these decades-old land dis¬putes have turned into sectarian conflicts. Not long ago in July 2020, the clash between the tribes of Parachamkanis and Balishkhel left five people dead and at least 20 injured.

“The land disputes have taken thousands of lives in Kurram district and left thousands disabled. The disputes are not related to religion or a political bias but to the land. We believe that the development of a land record system will resolve these ownership disputes and allow people to live in peace,” said Mansab Ali, a resident of Kurram.

The disputes in the MAs have a long history and have often led to full-blown armed conflict, leaving scores of people dead. Previously, the land record system in the former Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan would take years and many human lives to determine the ownership of land in case of a dispute.

Former FATA spreads over an area of more than 27,000 square kilometers with a population of 5 million people. For the past 70 years, unlike other provinces, the land record system in the MAs has not been developed except only a few pockets of land records in Kurram and North Waziristan during the British rule. The current state of property rights is characterized by two main features: (a) the ownership of land is undocumented; and (ii) most of the rights of usufruct are communal. The latter means that the ownership of most of the land rests with the tribe.

Informal settlements and local knowledge of the land demarcation passed on through generations had been the prevalent land management mechanism. However, the ambiguity related to these informal land boundaries has caused many violent disputes in the tribal society.

Under the 25th Constitutional amendment bill, in May 2018, seven tribal districts and six frontier regions were merged with the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Pakistan.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its pilot project provided technical assistance to the Board of Revenue, Government of KP and digitized the land record of the two revenue estates of upper Kurram (namely Alamsher and Dingeela) through a GIS-based digital system under the Merged Areas Governance Project (MAGP). The GIS records all the particulars about the owner of a given parcel of land as well as the geometric dimension of the land parcel.

Service Delivery Centers have also been established to computerize land records in consultation with the local elders and district administration to (a) protect an individual’s property and (b) the ownership is established.

The digitization of the land record system has made the data available to everyone in the blink of an eye. This is the reform most appreciated by the locals of upper Kurram who benefitted from the pilot project after integration with the province of KP.

“We can now access our lands sitting in our homes. We can grow crops on our lands, build a market, and can sell too if we want - without any fear of tribal feuds,” said Gulab Hussain, a resident of Kurram.

Another resident Rasheed Hussain also shared his ordeal before the pilot project and said that the tribes of Alamsher and Dingeela have also taken positions against each other in the past resulting in violent conflicts.

“I have been able to start construction on our share of land in the communal land after 15 years since the project started,” he said. “As there was no official mechanism before the merger and this pilot project about the settlement of the land records and the tribes wouldn’t agree on a common point, the land thus has been disputed since decades.”

Hussain believes that the people of MAs still have a long way to go in terms of governance and rule of law. However, he is hopeful about the conversation people have started about the structural changes required to bring development and peace after integration in the KP.

The community is already benefitting from the pilot project. Yousaf Ali, a resident of Alamsher said that the Service Delivery Centers (SDC) established to computerize the land records has made the issuance of land documents very easy.

“In the past, the process of issuing land records was very long and would make frequent visits to Patwari offices and also include bribery for fast-tracking your work. The record that you can get issued now in 100 rupees would take thousands before this exercise,” he added.

Yousaf continues that people were restricted to the existing old businesses but everybody has started construction on their lands now and is expanding their businesses after the settlement of land records.

The data collected and lessons learned from this pilot exercise will contribute to the development of upcoming land settlement projects that will encompass land recording of the whole of MAs.

The land record system has multi-layered advantages, it has not only doubled the price of the lands owned by the locals but has also created an atmosphere of trust between the buyers and sellers. Everybody now knows that the land can be officially transferred to one another.

“The primary objective of the land registration exercise is the ease of accessibility, transparency, the security of their land records, protection of property rights which is a fundamental right that the constitution provides to every citizen of this country,” said Zafar Ali Habib who works in the land settlement team of MAGP, UNDP.

Habib further said that the Board of Revenue in collaboration with UNDP is now extending the land settlement operation to the seven sub-divisions including Khar (Bajaur), Wazir (Bannu), Landi Kotal (Khyber), Dara Adam Khel (Kohat), Upper and Lower Kurram (Kurram) and Hassan Khel (Peshawar).

Moreover, the land settlement operation in the seven sub-divisions will be completed in three and half years and later extended to other parts of merged areas, Habib added.

The Board of Revenue department initiated and implemented mass awareness campaigns in the seven subdivisions of MAs. A range of tools and techniques were developed to foster participation through elders and district administration including radio, TV shows, and articles in the newspapers on the land settlement process in the seven sub-divisions of the MAs. Dissemination of posters, leaflets, mobile display/announcements, public meetings, social media campaigns, and school/college class awareness with the help of local administration are also part of the campaign to reach out to wider audiences.

The use of GIS technology will encourage land transactions in the formal markets since every potential buyer will want to verify from the GIS whether the title to the land is genuine and free from any hurdles.

“The land record initiative will not only give owners the right to their property but will also help eliminate the decade-long disputes among the locals or taking disputes to the courts or jirgas. People can utilize their land the way they want now,” said Afaq Wazir, Deputy Commissioner Kurram.

N. Burki

A freelance writer working in the social sector.