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EDITORIAL: PM Imran Khan made a very valid point, at a meeting of the National Coordination Committee (NCC) on Housing Construction Development, when he said that "land-use changes need to be checked where green vegetation areas are being converted to urban projects." This is indeed one of the biggest scams that is taking place right under the nose of the government; and it is not restricted to land-use change of green vegetation areas only. The going trend, apparently, is instituting de facto land-use change and then paying the penalty for it. This is how a lot of residential areas are converted into commercial areas, official land for parks ends up having shops built on it instead, and streams that are not allowed to be covered by law are covered by commercial enterprises for some people to make more money than allowed under the rules.

In short, first a de facto change is made and then third-party interest is created. Therefore, now that this issue has grabbed the attention of the highest office in the land, it would be very important to also sort out officials who conveniently look the other way as these scams take place in areas under their watch. After all, it takes a long time, sometimes years, for such projects to be completed. And by the time courts are presented with a fair accompli about third-party interest being created, there's precious little that can be done. If, for example, residential land is misused for commercial purposes, with a shopping plaza on the ground floor and residential apartments on top of it, then courts aren't really in a position to evict tenants from those flats; and so this cycle goes on.

The government is also an accomplice in all this because our laws allow for competent authorities to waive any of the conditions in any of the rules that govern such things and much more. The competent authority at the federal level is the prime minister and at provincial levels it is the respective chief ministers. And when resourceful businessmen are able to grease the right palms at the right times and get important rules waived off in their favour, it is pretty much the end of the matter as far as application of the law is concerned. Since the rule of law also requires respect for the law, a needless problem is created when the law itself says that you can contravene with impunity and buy your way through by paying penalties.

The PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government has been more serious than most of its predecessors when it comes to eliminating such scams. It has also pushed for digitizing land records to minimize and eventually root out regressive elements like land mafias that not just cripple a very big sector but also spook expat Pakistanis who were once eager to make investments in land back home. Therefore, the PM's directive of checking land-use changes should be taken very seriously by relevant departments and all progress on such things should be monitored by the PM's House itself.

In such cases, follow-up is as important as the command; sometimes even more so because of the chances of collusion between interest groups whose illegal windfalls are going to be affected once the law is implemented in its true letter and spirit. The country has already paid, and continues to pay, a very heavy price because of just such mafias and manipulators who prey upon unsuspecting third-parties for their own foul play.

The proof of the pudding, of course, lies in the eating. That is why how this particular order is implemented and followed through will be a good litmus test for the government as well as its many arms. It will also show how seriously the PM's own concerns are taken by departments that work under him, especially since everybody is aware of the presence of a lot of black sheep that use and abuse their privileged positions to make their own killing on the side.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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