Islamabad — The sound of shattering concrete echoes across the dual carriageway from the Dubai Plaza on Rawalpindi’s Peshawar Road. This double road, near the boundary of the federal capital and Rawalpindi, leads on to the Grand Trunk Road from the Tarnol Railway Interchange. It is engulfed in clouds of dust.
An anti-encroachment operation by the Capital Development Authority (CDA) is underway here in Tarnol.
The operation is part of an expansive anti-encroachment drive launched by the CDA. By the end of the Tarnol operation, CDA enforcement department staff, Islamabad Police personnel, and the federal capital’s district officials would clear encroachments from a five-kilometre strip around the railway interchange.
According to CDA officials, encroachment around Islamabad is a nuisance for the residents.
“The right of way is taken from the locals when encroachers grab land that belongs to the government,” Ramzan Khan, an assistant director of the CDA enforcement department told Media for Transparency. “These people are in parking lots, in front of shops and all busy or non-commercial areas.”
Mr. Khan said the government owns land on around 200 feet on either side of double roads. This is to ensure the government can move ahead with road expansion or development in the future without further land acquisition. Within the city, he said, parking lots and pavements belong to the government.
“Usually encroachers take advantage of the vast empty and free land to set up their businesses on busy roads,” he said.
The CDA enforcement department regularly clears encroachments, Mr. Khan claimed. But he said encroachments often reappear at the behest of influential land grabbers. He said he hoped this would no longer be the case with the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf government, which has vowed to uphold the rule of law, in power.
Fines and Auctions add to CDA Revenues
The CDA enforcement department collected over Rs. 2.4 million in fines from encroachers in 2018, according to statistics provided by the department.
The department confiscates goods, including hardware, carts, and clothes, from the vendors and shops operating on encroached land. Over 20,000 items were confiscated in the 2018 operations, according to Mr. Khan.
“The vendors can collect the items from us but they have to pay a fine,” he said.
The vendors who want to collect their confiscated goods are also made to sign a stamp paper affirming that they are poor and will not occupy land illegally again.
“Even after warning and fines, we see them going back to their old practice,” Mr. Khan said.
If the confiscated items are not claimed, the CDA auctions them off.
The most recent auction was held in June 2018 where scrap was sold for around Rs. 3.2 million.
“The collections go into the internal revenue of the department,” Mr. Khan said. “We recovered over 40 lakhs (Rs. 4 million) the past year and hope to retrieve more next year.”
Reclaiming Government Land and Nothing Else?
Between January and November 2018, CDA conducted 1,617 operations in various parts of the capital, according to official figures shared with Media for Transparency by the enforcement department. These operations included removal of small-scale roadside encroachments as well as large-scale encroachment removal, such as the one in Tarnol.
The department demolished 2,191 structures, including kiosks, shops, and concrete roofs, during the same time period.
During the Tarnol operation, the CDA claimed to retrieve 225 kanals of state land, according to a CDA press release. A total of 185 shops, 12 roadside hotels and dhabas, and 10 boundary walls were demolished among other structures.
Officials stressed that they only demolished construction or removed items that covered land that belongs to either the CDA or the National Highway Authority.
“The land has been measured according to the records kept by the revenue department,” Saad bin Asad, the Islamabad Capital Territory Administration’s Assistant Commissioner, told Media for Transparency. “We have cleared the land only up to the demarcations.”
The demarcation process started about six months ago, officials involved in the operation said. Notices were sent to the vendors and field visits were made to the area to inform the occupants to clear the land, officials said.
“Mostly vendors have taken their belongings and some are still in that process,” Mr. Asad said. “The leftovers will be confiscated.”
Traders who were uprooted during the anti-encroachment operation in Tarnol dispute the official claims.
Traders Deny Notice Claims
Several traders who spoke with Media for Transparency suggested they were never informed about the demolition date.
As the operation continued in the area, traders screamed at the officials for throwing their hardware away with excavators.
“They are not scared of the wrath of God,” Shaukat Khan, owner of Bakhtiyar scraps, said. “They came in the morning and threw items worth tens of millions away.”
He said the enforcement staff used heavy machinery to throw their goods on the road.
Mr. Khan, the CDA enforcement department official, said the traders were told beforehand.
“It is their fault that they did not remove their valuables and now they cry wolf,” he said.
Other traders claimed they were legal occupants but were not spared in the anti-encroachment drive.
“The demarcation was at least four feet in front of my shop,” Khalil Khan, who runs a scrap shop in the area, said. “Today they came and demolished the shed in front of my shop saying that even a foot on the government land is not allowed.”
Mr. Khalil Khan said the machinery inside his shop, which was still intact, is worth millions. The rubble in front of his shop made it difficult for him to enter his shop and remove the hardware.
“Once I am able to clear the way I won’t ever occupy even an inch of someone else’s land,” he said.
Assistant Commissioner Mr. Asad said he believes the people who occupied the land and ran shops knew that they were in the wrong.
“Some of them have demolished the structures themselves or do not resist when we carry the operations,” he said. “They have been yielding the fruits for free for the past 18 years or more.”
He said some people are happy that these encroachers are being brought to justice.
Lost in the cat-and-mouse game between the enforcement agency and the occupants of the land is a discussion on the need for government support for small businesses and traders.
Crackdown on the Poor
Ismat Raza, the deputy secretary of the Awami Workers Party, said strict licensing laws and expensive locations force low-income vendors to resort to encroachment. Local and poor vendors should be given a subsidised rate to start their businesses, she said.
“From the poorest to the most educated people in the country, people want to invest and run the economy but the country’s economy runs by the removal of the weak and poor from its cycle,” Ms. Raza said. “Licences for business should be made free.”
She said she believes the government officials are aware of the situation but tend to ignore things for their personal benefit.
“Just for bigger business, they shut down the smaller ones,” Ms. Raza said.
Amir Hayat Aulat, an assistant director of the CDA, admitted that shops of some poor vendors were crushed in the Tarnol anti-encroachment operation but he said most of the encroachers are backed by land mafia.
“The sun has set on them,” Mr. Aulat said, “They are helpless now as no MNA (Member National Assembly) or MPA (Member Provincial Assembly) is backing them anymore.”
The CDA might claim it is working in the state interest but its officials have been accused in the past of dubious land dealings. Even during the Tarnol operation, accusations of collusion were expressed.
Noor Muhammad, a 60-year-old Pashtun trader in the Tarnol area, said the traders were allowed to remain on the state land in exchange for regular payments.
“When we arrived here, we paid for the land,” Mr. Muhammad said. “The municipal department gave us electricity and gas connections. We regularly paid our bills and they never complained.”
He said government officials would take weekly bribes from them to let them use the land.
Pakistan People’s Party Senator Rehman Malik said he believes there is significant malpractice within the CDA.
“Vendors with permission slips from the CDA have come forward,” Mr. Malik said. “Their properties were destroyed because the department says that they made a mistake.”
Mr. Malik said the encroachment issue was referred to the Senate committee he leads. He said the committee has asked for detailed data on the demolished properties.
“Most importantly (we want to know) who was the head of CDA during such drives of spotting, survey and enforcement department,” he said. “They should be held accountable for misleading the general public.”