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Construction 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 scale.

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 life.

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 rapidly mushroomed.

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 black market.

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 buyers.

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 population.

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 years.

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 land.

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 build houses.

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 fulfilled.

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 fields.

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 abandoned forthwith.

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. 

Courtesy: The DAWN;

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