Yaseen Gujjar, a resident of Dhok Said Muhammad in Morgah, Rawalpindi, mumbles: “Meray pairon ke neechay se zameen khich gayi” or “The earth beneath my feet was snatched from right under me”, while explaining the decades-old legal battles he’s fought with Defence Housing Authority (DHA).
Currently, his ownership of almost 80 kanals of ancestral land is endangered by the rapid development of DHA Phase 4, close to Orchard Area in Rawalpindi. This story is one of the testimonies of the victims of large-scale projects that threaten to displace thousands in their greed to establish elite gated housing communities.
Yaseen’s family has been based in the area for four generations and relies on their small business of milk farming to earn a living. Housing societies have been trying to lay claim on their ancestral land. His fight against these powerful interests began almost two decades ago.
In 2002, after the death of Yaseen’s father, a well-known land tycoon tried to snatch the family’s property which was followed by a gruelling court battle fought by Yaseen. The court ultimately ruled in Yaseen’s favour but the story didn’t end there. Using pressure tactics, they convinced Yaseen’s brother to sell 40 kanals of the family’s property in 2007 out of the total 80 kanals that belonged to the two brothers. Yaseen’s brother also used a power of attorney that was forged 2 years after the death of their father to transfer the remaining 40 kanal land to the housing society as well.
“It still surprises me how they can keep a man alive for two years after his death and transfer property without the consent of all legal heirs” said Yaseen. He further explained how none of these documents were signed off by him and everything was done without his knowledge.
Yaseen filed another court case and managed to receive an injunction on his share of the property in the High Court. Afterwards, civil judge Murad Abbas overruled the stay order and scrapped the court case altogether. Yaseen remarked that the stay order was violated, and that he faced immense difficulty in appealing in the high court due to objection notices filed by the rival party. His rivals exploited judicial loopholes, used their contacts within the system, and even bribed his lawyers to legalize their unjust land grabbing.
Yaseen’s brother passed away a year back which made his plight even worse as he now had to singularly tackle systemic oppression head-on. Now, Yaseen had to fight an uphill battle against a real estate mogul with limited resources and zero contacts that could help him navigate through the system.
Recently, the DHA announced its new development project, DHA-IV, that extends beyond Orchard Area close to Morgah. Given the ambiguous rulings of his previous court battles, DHA exploited the opportunity and tried to book Yaseen & his family under false charges based on a fake report prepared by a local patwari. The SHO, stationed at Morgah thana at the time, conducted his own investigation into the matter and refused to help the authorities after he’d concluded that this land was indeed being illegally snatched.
Interestingly, this SHO was replaced within a week. His successor, SHO Aftab, fully supported the DHA in their cause. DHA authorities also approached the Assistant Commissioner and filed applications in different departments to book the family under false charges.
On April 4, 2022, DHA launched its first attack, according to Yaseen’s son, they justified their actions by stipulating that nearly 8 kanal of land lay directly under their family’s property and belonged to DHA. This operation was strategically timed during Jummah prayers with fewer people around to help. Fully equipped with bulldozers, DHA security personnel were ordered to start the process of encroachment. Repeated requests by Yaseen and his family to halt these activities were answered by the phrase, “we were ordered by Army to launch this operation“. Upon facing unrelenting resistance from family members, the security personnel ultimately backed away.
On August 15th, around 9 a.m. DHA was able to successfully bulldoze approximately 18 kanals of land within a couple of hours before the family reached the site (ref. khasra 1855). A fight ensued upon the family’s arrival, DHA authorities backed away again as the rightful owners strongly opposed this operation. A couple of DHA representatives asked to sit and talk with the owners so the family entertained them at their residence close by. A DHA official, colonel Mudassir used this opportunity to call 15 and acted as if their representatives had been kidnapped, the complaint was lodged in Morgah thana. The family also lodged a complaint that their land was being illegally snatched. The inquiry was taken up by DSP Azhar Shah who is currently responsible for investigating the matter further. The family claims that DHA is still pressurising the authorities to somehow book them under false charges to clear their path and move forward with the illegal land grab.
In the face of adversity, first in the form of real estate moguls and then against a planned housing scheme, Yaseen has managed to maintain his resolve. Even now, he claims that he wishes to fight till the bitter end to receive a sliver of justice in this case. Others in his position typically end up giving away their inheritance as fighting these legal battles takes a financial and mental toll on the victims.
This case serves as one of the countless examples of land grabbing that disproportionately targets those that are easily chewed up by the system owing to the lack of resources at their disposal. The underprivileged are almost always forced to leave their habitat to make way for the elite. This behaviour continues unabated with housing schemes like DHA amassing more land each day under the guise of expansion and fashionable development.
Countrywide land grab
The Morgah case is not an isolated incident. Evidence from many other parts including Sindh shows how small farmers and the poor are being displaced to make way for elite housing schemes. Scholars such as Ayesha Siddiqa have pointed out how the security institutions have been expanding their control over land. In 2019, Supreme Court Judge Justice Gulzar Ahmed observed that “DHA of Karachi have encroached so far into the sea. If they had their way, they would build a city on the sea.”
In 2021, Lahore High Court Chief Justice Mohammad Qasim Khan lashed out at DHA and gave critical remarks against the land development projects backed by the military.
Gated communities: keeping the poor out
The fashionable phenomenon of large-scale housing projects and gated communities continues to pop up in different cities all over Pakistan. In the case of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the scale of suburbanization is such that DHA Phase 1-5 and Phase 6 Extension are currently spread over 10,878 acres. To put things into perspective, the total area of Islamabad is 224,000 acres and almost 5% is owned by DHA alone.
These gated communities cater to the middle and high-income brackets only. Considering that all the aforementioned societies were developed in the recent past, it is quite natural to immediately dwell over the whereabouts of the people that were settled in these large swathes of land before its transfer to the elites.
A common characteristic noted upon entry into any of the above-mentioned societies is their clean and green environment. Unlike the clogged, polluted, and poorly planned clusters within Rawalpindi, these communities offer the elite and middle class in Pakistan an opportunity to effectively separate their residence from the poor. Those who can afford to take this step are increasingly flocking to these communities to either acquire residence or invest in the highly profitable real estate market. These factors allow these communities to expand and acquire more area within urban centres.
Each expansion campaign is followed by imagery and testimonies circulating on social media that involves the display of the extreme measures being employed against people that have been settled there for multiple generations.
These aesthetically appealing communities are built on the spilled blood and eviction of the locals, the question is whether we should allow this to continue.
Faryal Rashid is an activist working with Women Democratic Front Rawalpindi Islamabad. This interview was conducted in joint collaboration with Farhan Abbasi, a PhD history student at Quaid-e-Azam University.