Last week, Pakistan’s largest urban property developer run by the military, namely the Defence Housing Authorities (DHAs), was in the spotlight once again because of a four-page judgment issued by the Supreme Court.
The judgment effectively allowed DHA Quetta to continue acquiring land for the development of its schemes in accordance with the provisions of the DHA Quetta Act 2015. However, by making some observations and allowing leave to appeal to the DHA appeal, the court has also opened a small window for the parliament and concerned citizens to call out the DHAs and check this urban real estate monolith from devouring state lands.
A brief run down to the steps leading to the judgment by the three-judge bench comprising Justice Umar Ata Bandial, Justice Qazi Mohammad Amin Ahmad and Justice Sayyed Mazahar Ali Naqvi will be in order.
DHA Quetta was set up in 2015 after the provincial assembly passed the Defence Housing Authority Quetta Act 2015. Among other things, the act empowered the executive board of the DHA to purchase or acquire land not only in Quetta but anywhere in the province for the development of its housing schemes. Land purchased or acquired under the Land Acquisition Act 1894 was notified by the DHA as “controlled” areas.
Once the DHA expressed intention to acquire land anywhere, it had the powers to restrain any local authority from making development schemes in these areas without prior approval from its executive board. A mere notification forbade the provincial or the local government or private citizens from launching any development scheme there. It may have amounted to conquering lands by issuing notifications but this is what the law passed by the provincial assembly stated in plain terms.
In pursuance of this power, sometime towards the end of last year, the DHA Quetta issued a notification declaring a huge area of about 45,000 acres near Kuchlak pass in the outskirts of Quetta as ‘controlled’ for setting up another DHA.
A private housing scheme moved a petition in the Balochistan High Court (BHC) questioning powers of the DHA to acquire lands for development.
In a landmark judgment issued in December last year, the Balochistan High Court held that the DHA was a private entity and so could not acquire land under the Land Acquisition Act. It declared that permission from the DHA was not required by local authorities from developing any area and that any such restrictions were illegal.
Predictably, the DHA Quetta challenged the order in the Supreme Court which, after holding it in abeyance on March 16, finally decided the matter last week.
The Supreme Court must have weighed in on the legal arguments in arriving at the decision to overturn the BHC order so it cannot be argued in a newspaper article. However, the practical implications of the SC order need to be examined in larger public interest.
The executive board of the DHA Quetta, which has the powers to acquire land consist of the Commander Southern Command Quetta, administrator of the authority who under the act must be a serving or retired brigadier, two members nominated by Commander Southern Command in his discretion and secretary of authority also serving or retired army officer.
With such composition of the executive board and vast powers vested in it, the land acquisition process in the province is dangerously militarised.
True the Supreme Court barred the DHA Quetta from stepping out of ‘specified areas’ but there is hardly any satisfaction to be drawn from it as the executive board had unlimited powers to acquire land anywhere in the province, declare it as ‘specified areas’ and forbid local and provincial governments and private citizens from developing any schemes thereon.
Reportedly the private housing scheme which had moved the petition in BHC as an aggrieved party against the DHA Quetta later sought to withdraw the petition which was disallowed by the BHC. It is not hard to imagine why the private housing society felt obliged to withdraw its petition. An investigation into it might also shed some light on the operations of the housing authority.
Mercifully the Supreme Court order also acknowledged that the concerns expressed about the DHA Quetta Act by the BHC did invite caution. The court asked how an acquiring agency can conduct acquisition proceedings for itself without indulging in conflict of interest. Pointing out that such a power is not available to other DHAs in the country, the SC said that to examine these questions it was inclined to grant leave to appeal to the DHA appeal. One wishes that the court had examined whether DHA Quetta had indulged in conflict of interest, instead of merely raising a question. But the courts are bound by expressions of such wishes.
After the SC verdict and the questions it raised, it has become imperative for the parliament to undertake a thorough reappraisal of the functioning of all DHAs, how they acquired lands, how they are managed, how plots are distributed, their mushroom growth and how they were run by serving army officers while claiming status of a private sector enterprise.
There is a lot that DHAs have to explain. For instance, why an officer of one particular arm is entitled to as many as four plots while officers of other arms of defence services are entitled to only one in their entire service career? At least this was the position sometime back. Why, for instance, a retired officer of one arm is entitled to get a plot in DHA Islamabad, but not the retired officers of the other two arms?
It has been claimed that the DHA is a private land development entity. Isn’t it offensive that an entity headed by serving corps commander and manned by serving army officers is claimed to be a private body?
The Defence establishment should also pause and ponder over the consequences of unbridled militarization of state and society. The perception that it is acquiring land and distributing it among defence officers must be dispelled. The allotment of scores of acres of land worth billions to an ex-army chief has already cast shadows that must not be allowed to be lengthened.
The writer is a former senator