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EDITORIAL: It's no surprise at all that a number of senior ministers let loose their customary celebratory tweets, as soon as the government barred all federal institutions from acquiring land for housing purposes in Islamabad, about how something like this could only have been done by the Imran Khan administration.

History suggests that the year before election campaigning begins properly is the season for populist measures, so the government has more to sell in the last lap. Besides, while it's no doubt a good thing to end the practice of the state grabbing people's land at throwaway prices, often to turn it around and make a fortune, this step still raises more questions than it answers. So, in all likelihood it's a temporary measure meant to give some people a little something to cheer about when the impending return of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) programme is sure to swing the pendulum strongly towards growing public disapproval and discontent.

Already 'senior government officers' are being quoted in the press, anonymously of course, about how this step amounts to 'abolishing' the flagship Naya Pakistan Housing Programme since authorities will no longer be able to acquire land on which needy people were supposed to build affordable houses. And since now acquisitions that are in process will be settled at market rates, whose rates will be accepted, buyers' or sellers', and who will make the final decision?

The new arrangement is designed to rule out the usual exploitation at the deputy commissioner level, where prices were decided, but it doesn't make anything any simpler. Plus, people who have not yet received payments for their lands will simply be luckier than those that have, which isn't very fair. All this has already left CDA (Capital Development Authority) unable to develop eight planned sectors.

It seems that this move, just like a lot of others before it, was made without thinking the matter through. That is why it can prove counter-productive; even if the only purpose was to get people's attention in a good way. For, if a populist measure runs into far too many problems to stay popular, then it doesn't leave many people feeling much good about it. And that could leave the government vulnerable to savage attacks by the opposition practically on the eve of the general election.

That's not to say that the government did not identify a very serious issue. The nature of the practice, as it was, left a lot of room for manipulation and corruption. Reports of the government forcing people to sell their land and then making a lot of money off it were doing the rounds for far too long. That is why CDA's latest land acquisition spree raised so many eyebrows.

And that is also precisely why ministers are cheering the ban as a people-friendly move; even though its intrinsic value is hardly any greater than that of the claim made to the federal cabinet that prices in Pakistan were, in effect, much lower than all the countries around it.

It seems that this administration's habit of shooting off the hip is getting worse as the election is drawing near. In its desperation to roll out schemes and policies that look good for the people as well as its own fortunes, it is focusing more on quantity than quality. But surely it does not need to be reminded that if it is not careful, it will drag the people - whose lives are already not much to write home about at the moment largely because of economic conditions - down with it.

And if it does not have a contingency plan to deal with the immediate fallout of the ban on land acquisition for housing in the capital, then it is going to have a lot of trouble sticking to it.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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