Multi-billion rupee mangrove forest land grab: the sequel

This picture shows village volunteers planting mangrove seedlings. — Reuters/File

KARACHI: On Dec 16, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court extended a stay it had issued on Nov 26 on any transaction pertaining to 530 acres along Gizri Creek. Further, it also stayed the several SHC proceedings on the ownership of the area and summoned the record of all litigation in order to decide its fate.

Of the total, 490 acres actually comprise mangrove marshes in the Malir River delta. Less than 500 metres away, across the creek towards the west, lie Defence Housing Aurthority (DHA) Phases 7 and 8, and landmarks such as the Marina Club. (The remaining 40 acres, which are nearby in Korangi district, have been earmarked for a ‘presidential’ style palace.)

It is an open secret that the ultimate beneficiaries of the sale of the mangrove marshes include DHA Karachi. The new administrator DHA Karachi, Brigadier Zubair Ahmed, told Dawn: “DHA will only move according to the court’s instructions. It will not take a step in this issue otherwise”.

In response to a Dawn report of Oct 26, titled ‘Karachi: a goldmine for land developers’, DHA Karachi in a letter to the editor claimed that “...before acquiring any land the DHA ensures that all government records are checked and verified. NOCs are obtained from all concerned government agencies. All deals are, therefore, made in a clean and transparent manner.”

If that is indeed the case, DHA should walk away from the proposed ‘sale’ of the mangroves, which was the subject of the aforementioned report.

On Nov 8, four individuals, namely Amjad Hussain, Muhammad Sultan, Aslam Pervez and Nasreen Akhtar – reportedly fronting for some former and present officials controlling the Sindh government – filed a suit in the Sindh High Court (SHC) against the Board of Revenue (BoR), Sindh. In it, they demanded that the latter should, as per the chief minister’s orders, issue an NOC for sale of the 530 acres which they claimed was their property.

On Nov 14, a rival claimant, Asif Baig Mohammed, moved his application to be made a party in the suit before the same SHC bench of Justice Shafi Siddiqui hearing Amjad Hussain and co. Mr Mohammed maintains that he had purchased 342 acres of this area in 1996 soon after it was allotted to Gulnar Begum, the wife of late Agha Tariq, minister for mining in the PPP government.

Despite stiff opposition by BoR Sindh, the court felt it prudent to allow the application for intervention. After listening to both sides, Justice Shafi Siddiqui issued an order in which he said that “all officers concerned including Survey Superintendent and the Mukhtiarkar Korangi shall be made available along with the relevant record to assist the Official Assignee [Kadir Bakhsh Umrani] who will see where this land is practically available”.

Multiple cases pertaining to the area’s ownership and initial allotment are in the superior courts as well as the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). At least eight stay orders preventing the creation of third party interest had been earlier issued in these cases.

DHA Karachi’s involvement

In his conversation with Dawn, Brigadier Ahmed held out the assurance that DHA Karachi would ensure protection of the mangroves, if it were to come in possession of the area.

An engineering expert who was involved in the initial construction phase of Karachi’s deep water sea port scoffed at the notion. “The only way to reclaim marshes is by blocking seawater ingress for which they will have to dump massive boulders along the edges and then dewater the area,” he said. “That would choke off the mangroves’ very source of survival, which is the seawater.”

But this could hardly be news to cantonment authorities in Sindh. Back in 2002, during General Musharraf’s military government, the 342 acres of the mangroves allocated to Gulnar Begum and later bought by Mr Mohammed were under investigation by NAB for allotment at below market price. A report dated June 21, 2002 by then chairman NAB, Lt Gen Munir Hafeez, noted: “… the land in question is inside Malir River Delta and in fact, it was not to be allotted, being in the river bed ...”.

Later, when a ‘Land Regularisation Committee’ was formed under the Provision of Sindh Urban State Land Ordinance 2001 to determine the loss to the government in the allotment of 342 acres to Gulnar Begum, the commander V Corps (headquartered in Karachi) and president DHA Karachi were represented on it by Colonel Sohail Malik and Station Commander Karachi, Brigadier Fazl-ul-Karim.

Interestingly, a report by the committee after visiting the site on April 20, 2005, described it as “unaccessable [sic], marshy and low lying”. Another significant observation: “Of course, this land has acquired importance due to its location in front of Marina Club…. Obviously after putting in a huge investment it can turn out to be a very attractive and prime site.”

According to former DHA director, special projects, Brigadier Javed Ashraf, “DHA has been eyeing the area for a long time. But saner voices had prevailed earlier”.

Rival claimants

When Mr Mohammed purchased the 342 acres of mangroves in 1996, he did so through Marina City Developments (MCD), in which he and another businessman, Khalid Masood, were the principal partners along with a third minority shareholder.

Also party to the legal wrangling is PSL, owned by Hashoo Group. In 2007, PSL paid a down payment towards the purchase, for Rs970 million, of two-thirds of the 342 acres courtesy Mr Masood, who had by then fallen out with Mr Mohammed.

According to a source close to one of the partners, the transaction was achieved through some BoR Sindh officials who “manipulated the land record so that title to the land could be divided into three in BoR's record to reflect the three shareholders. This was managed through [a political personality prominent until recently in land deals in Sindh].”

PSL and Mr Mohammed, the other partner in MCD who contests PSL’s purchase of two-thirds of 342 acres from Mr Masood on grounds of fraud, have both sent legal notices to DHA Karachi. These notices call upon the Authority to refrain from entering into any agreement with Amjad Hussain and co with respect to the disputed property.

Meanwhile, NAB investigations into the initial allotment of 342 acres below market price are still ongoing. It would do well to remember that as per the NAB Ordinance’s section 23 (a) and (b), later upheld by a five-member Supreme Court bench, anyone transferring title or creating any third party interest in property under investigation is liable to three years’ rigorous imprisonment.

Court proceedings

Amjad Hussain and co’s claim of ownership is based on shady contracts ostensibly dating back to 1936 but which were actually drawn up in the early ‘90s by functionaries in former chief minister Jam Sadiq’s government.

The courts have repeatedly rejected the claim over the years. In fact, in 2006, officials from BoR Sindh itself stated in the SHC that, “The plaintiffs [Amjad Hussain and the three ‘co-sellers’], in active connivance with the corrupt officials of the Revenue Department, managed false, fictitious and fraudulent entries in the Revenue Record”.

Nevertheless, the claim of these individuals – frontmen for the powers that be in the Sindh government – was revived in 2012 by then additional executive director revenue, CDGK, Mustafa Jamal Qazi, allegedly at the behest of certain VVIPs.

BoR officials are now contending that the 490 acres are somehow separate – and hence free from all legal encumbrances – from the 342 acres that have been the subject of much litigation since the late ‘90s. All interested parties are well aware that it is one and the same area.

This includes DHA Karachi whose officers have not only been privy to NAB investigations into the 342 acres that lie within it and its sale by Gulnar Begum to MCD, but in early 2006, DHA Karachi was negotiating with MCD to develop the area as a joint venture. However the proposal, put up in an executive board meeting on Jan 21, 2006, did not materialise.

There are other indications that DHA Karachi, assisted by the ever-obliging Sindh government, has long been interested in the area. When Gulnar Begum was allotted the 342 acres in 1994, and in subsequent transfer deeds, the area was described as “Plots A and B in the delta on the two sides of Malir river adjoining deh Dih”. (‘Deh’ is the smallest revenue unit for land in Sindh, similar to ‘mauza’ in the rest of the country.)

Years later, in November 2012, BoR Sindh extended the boundaries of deh Dih over the mangrove marshes, including the 342 acres, and assigned survey numbers 445 to 475 to the new area. A map of the expanded deh Dih shows Survey no 475, measuring two acres, situated between the PARCO and PSO pipelines in isolation. However, as per a ‘master plan of phase VIII’ developed this year, Survey no 475 corresponds with the location of one of the two bridges which is to link the waterfront project to mainland DHA.

Meanwhile, the VVIPs behind the scam have left no stone unturned to get their way. “The land revenue and settlement division, down to the clerks, has been overhauled in the last one month, and replaced with those whose loyalty to the powers that be is unquestioned,” disclosed a senior Sindh government functionary.

And then there’s the not insignificant matter of the letter cancelling the 2012 survey that has been removed from the BoR record, on the assumption that no copies exist anywhere.

The saga leaves many environmental activists in Karachi to wonder: what will it take for powerful lobbies to stop abusing pelf and privilege to appropriate what they are supposed to hold in trust for the citizens of this city?

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