versus agricultural land
By Zafar Samdani
The construction industry is generally considered synonymous
with capability for providing instant impetus to a country's
economy through jobs for workers and allied and downstream
industries, supply of materials and expertise.
There is no denying of this capacity of the construction
sector. It has indeed been instrumental in galvanizing various
economies around the globe.
The breakthrough is usually provided by major industrial
ventures, state sponsored mega projects such as water
reservoirs and of course housing, provided its growth is large
At this point in time, a blank has to be drawn in Pakistan on
the first three counts because deadly silence prevails in the
industrial sector, no reportable mega project is underway,
water reservoirs seem on the cards but they have so far
generated more controversy than jobs or economic activity of
any denomination. Housing is the only area with any signs of
But it is more of an impression than concrete fact on ground.
Most newspapers as also some cable channels are continuously
publicizing plans and projects of housing societies that have
The moment a new housing society announces that it is seeking
applications for the allotment of residential plots, large
numbers of people make a beeline for their offices or the
banks identified for obtaining and submitting application
forms. A shortage of forms has been reported for more than one
colony; there have been reports even of forms selling in the
The submission of applications forms costs money and although
the amount may be relatively small for an individual, the
total comes to a sizable figure. Which means that a housing
society is in business from the word go.
There is a time lag between submission of applications and
balloting for allotment. What happens is that the moment a
housing society starts functioning, not building houses but
simply announcing its presence, people start queuing up for
investing savings in the hope of price escalation, planning to
use the land for building a residence or striking profit by
buying low and selling high.
But the main activity in the sector is buying and selling of
documents that are referred to as 'files'. This is happening
more in government sponsored colonies, mainly the defense
housing authority projects than the private sector because
land is sold, comparing with prevailing market trends, at
extremely low rates in these projects and, as the President of
Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, has himself said, as a
result of good infrastructure facilities created by the
authorities concerned, the graph of prices zooms up; a
majority of owners prefer quick profit to holding on to the
land, presumably because some of them get more than one
residential plot allotted for meritorious services.
But the result is sky rocketing prices of land. Rates have
indeed risen astronomically. Surprisingly and against all
known principles of real estate bargains, instead of
discouraging people from investing in residential plots
because prices have hit such an unprecedented high that there
is scant possibility of further rise, the situation has
created a snowball effect in the market and among prospective
Such Pakistani immigrants that hope to return to the
motherland some day are described by real estate agents as
prime buyers while those who have permanently settled abroad
are reported to be featuring in many high value deals because
they visualize a fair amount of profit from their investment.
Well-connected moneyed locals are equally active, indeed more
aggressive in the land buying and selling business than any
other segment of populace.
The price of land is however one aspect of the situation.
Another and, for a country with an agriculture based economy,
the situation has a disturbing negative development too.
The success of housing societies seem to have inspired
individuals and groups of all denominations to get into the
race and they have been buying land across Punjab,
particularly on the periphery of major to medium sized urban
centres where the population is bursting at the seams.
These centres are consequently sprawling in all directions;
the land that provided residents with fresh supplies of
vegetables are vanishing and fields that produced wheat, rice,
sugar cane and in some cases, cotton too, are shrinking.
Either shortages of land's produce are occurring or their
prices are going out of the reach of even middle class
The unprecedented and to quite an extent unexplained interest
in purchasing high priced land has led to the conversion of
vast fertile tracts into proposed sites for both private and
government sponsored residential colonies.
The full scale of this trend has not been ascertained but
lands with crops still cultivated in them have also been
purchased even around small towns at low rates by speculators
who visualize a bigger housing market because of increasing
population. This is nothing new and has been going on for
Some developers spotted the potential of the trade a long time
back and, possessing resources to spare, purchased agriculture
fields from farmers who could not make ends meet because of
low financial yield from crops.
Continuing farming had become a losing proposition; this was
and remains the case, particularly of small farmers. Members
of the farming community possessing lands encircling urban
centers felt that they had a bargain at hand that can help
them start life anew in another field. One does not know if
their hopes materialized or they escaped the frying pan to
fall into the fire but the outcome has been loss of cultivable
The villains roles was played by none but the provincial
government that established residential colonies to ease
pressure from housing problems of the people but this has been
more of a rake-off than genuine effort at resolving the issue
because administrations pressurized owners to sell so that
land could be distributed to important officials, their kith
and kin and influential and politically connected people.
It was a devise for providing easy money to individuals placed
in a position to exploit the situation though admittedly, many
citizens also benefited from these schemes. But exploiters
have succeeded in outnumbering genuine beneficiaries.
No one in Punjab's Revenue Department has ever considered
making an inventory of fertile agriculture land lost to
housing and industrial projects, though much less land has
gone to the later sector.
But officials agree that this is happening at a very large
scale. The greed of developers and officials is eating up
precious agriculture land. Not only that the government has no
policy to stem the rot, it is contributing towards worsening
the situation by announcing colonies to appease and bribe
pressure groups in the name of providing them opportunity to
There can be no denying of the importance of developing the
housing sector and ensuing that all citizens have reliable
shelter. The present situation is hardly moving in that
direction, not that needs of some segments are not being
But developments are taking place in a haphazard and
exploitative manner that bodes ill for the economy in so far
as agricultural land is being converted for real estate
operations, housing projects and industrial estates that, even
though needed, should not be to permitted to swallow fertile
The least the government can do is come up with a clear cut
policy that protects agriculture land and ensures the
development of the housing sector in an organized manner and
along lines that provide housing to the maximum number of
citizens, specifically the homeless but not at the cost of the
country's food needs.
The first, the most essential step to this end would be
curbing the establishment's attitude of talking over land to
distribute among favored groups. The policy of grabbing poor
people's lands at low rates and distributing it to the
privileged to enable them to make quick money must be
There should be no room for allotment of more than one
residential plot to any individual, howsoever holy a cow the
person may be. The very concept of allotting land to
individuals is distortion of all concepts of social welfare;
the argument that state is looking after citizens through this
policy is seen through and provides only a fig leaf of defense
to the establishment for its policy of favoring individuals or
vested interest elements if agriculture land is to be saved
for producing food.
What the country needs is a clearly defined and strictly
implemented policy that places premium on agriculture land and
disallows its exploitation for non-productive purposes, not
even for the highest in the country.
An inventory of land so far lost to non-agriculture use must
be prepared urgently and its implication to the national
economy should be worked out to ascertain in precise financial
terms as to what the land for the privileged has cost in terms
of import of foodstuff.
The government must realize that the lands it is allowing for
distribution and housing colonies is cutting into national
food needs and the present policy, or the lack of it, is
ultimately bound to cause greater shortages and further
dependence on import of foodstuff.
Rewarding a few by depriving the majority and the national
economy can hardly be lauded. It is dangerous, to say the
least. Can we afford to persist with present practices? The
answer is in the negative.
It is up to the authorities to decide whether to lead Pakistan
into famine-like conditions or to come up with a plan for
providing housing without impairing the agricultural strength
of the country.