Syed Murid Husain Shah lives on an oasis. Around him is the sprawling Phase-1 of the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) in Multan, being constructed on more than 3,000 acres of land. And while construction works around him carry on apace, Shah has been resolutely defending his land and the mango orchards that are standing on it.
“How can I allow the felling of mango orchards that were planted by my grandfather?” he says incredulously.
Shah is a resident of Mauza Garh-i-Wahan in Multan. He is among the handful of landowners who did not sell their land to the DHA-Multan. In March last year, he found a notice on his doorstep: the DHA-Multan had attained permission to acquire land in the vicinity to develop its Phase-I.
The notice urged those land owners who did not sell their land to the DHA to do so till March 31, 2016. No further extensions were to be allowed; the remaining land in the notified area for the DHA was to be acquired under the relevant government rules and regulations. The unsigned notice was issued by DHA-Multan’s deputy director for estate on March 17, with a UAN 061-111-111-189 provided in case any clarifications were needed. Shah did not succumb to the notice. He remains worried, however, that DHA authorities can obtain his land forcibly —as he is still being pressured from various quarters to sell his land to the DHA.
Housing schemes have mushroomed in the city over the past few years, eating into its once-fabled orchards of the king of fruits. They are putting in peril the city’s and Pakistan’s mango produce
Shah’s case is symptomatic of larger developments in Multan: hundreds of acres of mango orchards on the outskirts of the city have already turned into populous housing schemes by various land developers. This onslaught of ‘development’ was unleashed around two decades ago and shows no sign of abating any time soon. And while population pressures dictate new housing colonies crop up, many more mango orchards have been marked for felling.
LAND AND LUCRE
As many as 48 big housing schemes burgeoned in the city, claims a report prepared by the Punjab Agriculture Department a few years ago. The report estimated the orchard area of Multan Tehsil measured about 44,000 acres then. The new housing schemes chewed up 7,817 acres of land — 2,043 acres (26 percent) of this acquired land is in fact orchard area that has been lost to property greed.
A few days ago, the Multan Development Authority (MDA) released a report claiming that the number of legal and illegal housing societies in Multan actually stands at 460. The majority of land taken over is agricultural while more orchard land has already been marked for sale.
In fact, the northern bypass of the city has opened a new vista for real estate investors with many big players having attained agricultural land. The biggest chunk of acquired land lies with the DHA which has encroached upon the northern approach to the city. DHA alone is being established over an area of 9,000 acres and its maximum proposed area is derived from land where mango orchards stand today.
Opposite DHA Phase-I are the Buch Villas (a gated society), also constructed over land that was previously mango orchards. The encroachment of developers continues till Bund Bosan, Royal Orchards, and Wapda Town Housing Scheme, among others — all of these have been erected in the heartland of mango-growing areas of Multan. These housing societies have uprooted many mango orchards and removed growers from their ancestral trade.
When sellers began purchasing the files to land in DHA Phase-I, they were greeted with news that a marla as defined by DHA-Multan stood at 225 sq ft (approximately 21 sq metres). With a precedent now set, other developers also decided to reduce their marla size. Those buying into housing schemes on agricultural land and mango orchards were paying arbitrary rates, set by real estate tycoons, for a plot of land sized far below its standard measurement.
The eastern flank of the city has not remained immune to this disaster, either. For instance, Jinnah Town and other colonies have sprung up in a jiffy, uprooting orchards and people in its wake, as Multan city limits have now reached the outskirts of a small town near Multan called Duniyapur.
On the face of it, there must have been a demand for new housing for these companies to have started construction there. But in truth, there are multiple tragedies at play.
“Much of the land that has been acquired is in the mango-growing region of South Punjab,” asserts president of the Mango Growers’ Association (MGA), Zahid Hussain Gardezi. “There were many small- and middle-sized farmers in these areas for whom agriculture wasn’t cutting it any more. High cost of inputs, low returns, and water shortages were common. These paralyzed growers were unable to withstand the glitter of money and even coercion.”
Gardezi bemoans the real estate boom in Multan as a tragedy — both for the city as well as for the heritage of Multani mangoes.
The MGA chief explains that the major annexation of agricultural land for housing projects began in fertile agrarian belts — with society’s most vulnerable sometimes exploited with great ease at times, and at others, coerced into doing business. He argues that farmers had to face the brunt of abhorrent government policies, which had “no footing in the agro status of these areas,” meaning they lacked knowledge about the on-ground situation in these agricultural areas.
The prosperity offered by the growing real estate businesses lured many mango orchard owners into selling their land for one-time premium prices. Before the arrival of the DHA to the locality where DHA Phase-I currently sits, one acre of land would cost between two and three million rupees. Prices now vary between six and 10 million rupees — a 200-300 percent increase.
A few days ago, the Multan Development Authority (MDA) released a report claiming that the number of legal and illegal housing societies in Multan actually stands at 460. The majority of land taken over is agricultural while more orchard land has already been marked for sale. In fact, the northern bypass of the city has opened a new vista for real estate investors with many big players having attained agricultural land ... DHA alone is being established over an area of 9,000 acres and its maximum proposed area is derived from land where mango orchards stand today.
“Multani mango-growers took pride in transforming the entire landscape of the city,” says Gardezi. “From its historical associations with gor [graveyard], gard [dust], garma [heat] and gadaagar [beggar], they turned it into a beautiful skyline adorning the outskirts of the walled city. If you were taking off in a plane from the old short runway of Multan Airport, you’d gaze at miles of mango orchards and fertile agriculture land. None of it exists anymore.”
WHAT’S IN A MARLA
In Punjab, the marla is a standard measurement — 272.25 sq ft or approximately 25 sq metres. Except that standards don’t seem to apply to Multan’s booming real estate sector.
When news first spread that DHA had entered the area, it started attracting the attention of landowners who were desperate to sell. The sale was made on the calculation that for every acre sold, the landowner will receive two files, each containing property deeds of a one-kanal plot (approximately 500 sq metres).
In other words, for every eight acres sold, the landowner was getting rights to two acres in return. They could settle on their land or sell the rights onwards. The other six acres went to the DHA, to be utilised for plotting residential zones, amenity plots and roads.
But even as landowners grumbled that they had been hustled, that they had been offered peanuts for their property, the bigger jolt was yet to strike.
When sellers began purchasing the files to land in DHA Phase-I, they were greeted with news that a marla as defined by DHA-Multan stood at 225 sq ft (approximately 21 sq metres).
With a precedent now set, other developers also decided to reduce their marla size. Those buying into housing schemes on agricultural land and mango orchards were paying arbitrary rates, set by real estate tycoons, for a plot of land sized far below its standard measurement.
Meanwhile, many landowners who had agreed to sell their orchards made good money at the beginning. There were fewer DHA Phase-I files flying around in the open market and prices were high as a result. One kanal was fetching 5.9 million rupees.
The good days didn’t last long, though.
In their infinite wisdom, DHA-Multan decided to sell land on their own, much before the previous landowners had finished making their sales.
With the market now flooded with files, prices nosedived. From 5.9 million rupees, the same land was now fetching 4.9 million rupees. All of a sudden, there were more sellers in the market than buyers.
Undeterred by this setback, DHA-Multan pressed ahead with plans to acquire 9,000 acres for its housing society. Market insiders claim that about 7,300 acres of land has already been acquired. Phase-I has been rebranded as Sector A, with more sectors to follow.
As for buyers of land, there are questions over whether DHA-Multan is fleecing clients or not. There is also speculation in the market that Bahria Town will be entering the area soon.
Real estate dealers argue that if that were to indeed happen, DHA will come into direct competition with a rival of note. That means that the price of land will be driven further down.
THE PULP SQUEEZE
While Zahid Hussain Gardezi points to the glaze of money and coercion at work to fell mangoes, other factors were at play too … or more accurately, did not bother coming to play.
As per Section 12 of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act (PEPA), developers need to submit an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for any new project to the relevant provincial environment department.
The EIA report is supposed to calculate the environmental cost of the project and if the negatives outweigh the positives, clearance for construction is withheld. By law, obtaining environmental approval is “mandatory at the planning stage.”
On November 6, 2014, the Multan district officer for environment intimated the DHA-Multan Secretariat that they needed to furnish an EIA report to satisfy environmental concerns. This did not happen as DHA-Multan attempted to skirt the issue altogether.
A few months later, on August 31, 2015, the Multan district officer for environment submitted a report to the director-general of the Punjab EPA, stating that: “We have visited the areas mentioned above and it has been noted that the area selected by the DHA-Multan has [a] vast area of mango orchards, private and government properties. Cutting of mango orchards will destroy the local ecosystem and it will [deal] severe environmental damage at local as well as at national level.”
The authors of the report were the deputy district officer for environment and an environmental inspector. In their report, they wrote that they feared that the DHA-Multan were using the EPA as “tools” to have land vacated. The report further stated that the destruction of mango orchards on so vast an area will lead to severe environmental degradation in addition to the reduction of mango produce from Multan.
“In order to estimate the exact area under mango orchards, a report may be solicited from the Board of Revenue, Punjab. It needs serious considerations,” concludes the report.
While the official thrust from the local environment department was to protect the mangoes, both the district government and the Multan Development Authority played the role of silent spectators in what is proving to be a catastrophic blunder. Neither of them managed to check the growth of legal and illegal housing societies which have eaten into the orchard area of the city that is renowned for its production of mangoes.
In fact, in the MDA’s 20-year Master Plan for Multan (2008-2028), many of the 11 mauza where orchards initially stood were declared as green areas. Later on, these were exempted from protection and construction was allowed on them. Part of the reason for this leeway was that the MDA was looking into constructing housing schemes itself, which sources inside the development authority claim have been planned on agricultural land.
Meanwhile, sources at the Punjab Environmental Protection Agency (headquartered in Lahore) claim that DHA-Multan eventually did file an EIA, against which a no-objection certificate (NOC) was subsequently issued. But over in Multan, well-placed sources claim that no copy of the NOC reached the local environment protection office. Whatever paperwork was moved between the DHA and the Punjab EPA was done so directly, bypassing the Multan office altogether.
Throughout this sordid tale, the role of the land mafia gradually became prominent as real estate business became a major reason why there were numerous rags-to-riches stories emerging from Multan. Gradually big real estate developers entered the fray; as of now, the real estate sector in Multan is in full bloom with housing projects being developed and more investment being encouraged in this lucrative sector.
CAN AGRICULTURAL LAND BE SOLD OFF?
Although many land developers, through their ‘dealers’ and agents, have acquired agricultural land in Multan, there remain grave concerns over the legality of this process.
The law governing land acquisitions in Punjab is the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. The law deals with acquisitions to be made by the government. As a first, the law requires a government notification on whether the land in question “is needed for a public purpose or for a company.”
Much of the land that was acquired by land developers, including the DHA-Multan, was bought using the legal cover of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. Some in the property sector argue that if this law applies to the case of the DHA, then landowners such as Murid Hussain Shah can be evicted from their property, and “through the help of the court, if necessary.”
The other argument on the issue is that the 1894 Act does not apply in this case.
“DHA-Multan cannot use the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 to acquire land since it is merely a chapter of DHA-Lahore,” argues Advocate Fahim Gill. “DHA-Lahore is not a public entity by any instrument of statutory law. Initially, the DHA was the Lahore Cantonment Housing Society, and it was registered under the Lahore Cantonment Corporate Society Act, 2005.”
What adds more weight to the argument is a suo moto case heard by a Supreme Court tribunal in 2015 against DHA-Lahore. The three-member bench included then chief justice Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja, Justice Dost Muhammad Khan and Justice Qazi Faez Isa. The case made headlines for the judiciary’s insistence that the DHA cannot escape public audits on the pretext of it being a military establishment.
But in the details of the case is the notion that the DHA-Lahore had overstepped its bounds in acquiring land.
“We also direct that land which is included in larger tracts and in joint khatas in which title has not come to vest with DHA, shall not be sold or advertised for sale,” reads the order issued on September 1, 2015.
Nevertheless, what is abundantly clear is that orchard land in Multan, or for that matter other protected green spaces, have had little protection from the powers that be. If a legal precedent exists, then that verdict should in theory be applied in other cases. Till now, that has not been the case in Multan.
TRADE AND TRIBULATIONS
Over the past five years, the share of mangoes in total fruit exports from Pakistan has hovered between 11 and 12 percent. But that is set to decline as mango orchards are being felled and no new mango varieties that can thrive despite drought-like conditions have entered the market.
“The impediments in the coming era for the mango industry in Pakistan are very daunting indeed,” says Gardezi. “We have been unable to produce new commercial varieties which can withstand drought and even higher temperatures. [We need newer varieties since] our renowned Behisht Chaunsa has begun to show signs of degeneration in the shape of less fruiting, poor holding capacity to climate variations and shorter shelf life.”
According to the MGA chief, mango growers are now facing the burden of climate change as for the past few years, erratic weather conditions have not only upset the normal mango production cycle but have also augmented heavy losses to mango growers.
“Due to reasons of lower productivity and heavy losses, mango growers too have axed many mango orchards for some sort of substitute income,” says Gardezi. “We fear that unless mandatory zoning is not enforced, mango cultivatable area will decline.”
Ghalib once wrote, “There are only two essential points about mangoes: they should be sweet and they should be plentiful.” The renowned Seraiki poet Riffat Abbas had this to add:
I arrange shadows so that my Lord doesn’t feel the heat
I’m planting mangoes, for my Lord has a sweet tooth
Unfortunately, for something that is an integral part of the area’s culture, there seems to be no concern for its brutal destruction. Amidst all the architectural plans, there are no drawings of mango orchards. Today there is but a whiff of the Multani mango in the orchards that were once the pride of Multan, and indeed, of Pakistan.
The writer is a member of staff.
He tweets @shakeelbaluch
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 15th, 2017