By NAJMA SADEQUE
Can anyone twist another’s arms to sell off his lands – inherited or bought, occupied or cultivated — against his will? Sounds naive. Of course you can – in Pakistan!
Among the dozen victim parties is a retired primary schoolteacher, Mrs. Hamida Begum: all looked forward to spending the rest of their lives in Gatwala, Faisalabad. Suddenly one day they learned they would be relieved of lands they occupied for decades and had clear title to. But officialdom would not come to their aid. None highlighted their plight.
People unfortunately go about their lives under the erroneous belief we live under the same old rules prevailing at partition. But they keep changing and being added to. Like it or not, many actions at the international level affect us on the individual level as well, because of the predatory behaviour of private multinational and national corporations. It makes it necessary to recognize the nature of corporations, because they have far more muscle than other companies and individuals.
When private investors are unable to raise enough capital for vast ventures, the corporate system resolves this. — Huge funds are generated simply by widening the number of investors or shareholders. This doesn’t mean they are benefitting the public at large — only the profiting shareholders, most of who are ‘sleeping’ investors; perhaps also, but not necessarily, the employees to a lesser extent through a few benefits. If there are any losses, the directors are responsible only to the extent of their individual investments, no more.
Because American corporate law has infiltrated corporate law worldwide — people the world over feel the intrusive pinch at national and local levels, as multinationals and local links begin to lean on weak governments, and impose their will to take unwarranted liberties.
Many authoritative studies on the history and behavior of corporations, global and country-wise, exist. But Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation, on which is based the full-length documentary of the same name, states that the law is universally being “overwhelmingly influenced by vested interests and those in power, who often succeed in infiltrating the justice system with their own legal experts bent to self-serving purpose.”
Sitara Chemical Industries, a huge diversified corporation in chemicals, yarn spinning and agricultural products, applied for a large chunk of land from the government because it “wanted to develop residential plots for its workers/employees and other amenities, i.e., playgrounds, schools and hospitals, college, health club, and community welfare centre …”
That’s fine: anyone is free to do what they want with their own land and money. But it wasn’t state land they were seeking. It was other people’s private lands bordering theirs.
Sitara already owns 1372 kanals or just over 170 acres for its project (A kanal is between 500 and 600 square yards or one-eighth of an acre, depending on where applied.) But they wanted 125 acres more to fulfill their dreams. The only ones who had that extra were the neighbours. — All long settled and minding their own business.
It was obviously known the owners had no reason or intentions to sell, because Sitara went to extraordinary, unusual lengths. The CEO of Sitara, Mr Muhammad Idrees, applied to the Commissioner of the Faisalabad Division, claiming that his project was for the ‘public purpose.’ But since when is a private corporation’s providing for its private employees, makes it a public purpose? This cannot be proved by a long shot in any court of law.
He also ‘undertook’ to compensate the owners – but only as much that the Collector decided they were worth – something done for public property only, and often arbitrarily. No intentions of paying a possibly higher market price. Insult was added to injury with forced sale combined with lower price.
Soon after New Year’s Day, Punjab Gazette published notification that 125 acres were likely to be acquired, and if any person had any objections, they should respond within 30 days. That should have allowed time till beginning of February.
There were plenty of objections – twelve of them. But most owners didn’t know about the subterfuge long underway. If it hadn’t been for the notification, they’d have never found out.
Mysteriously enough, the decision did not wait for 30 days. Not even a week. According to correspondence, decisions were made on the very same day that the letter was issued calling for objections! An unprecedented record indeed for Pakistan’s land administration.
Mr. Shafiullah, the Assistant Commissioner of Sadar, Faisalabad, unilaterally stated that objections ‘were irrelevant and baseless and without any locus standi”; that they were “simply verbal, imaginative, uncalled for and not relevant.” But what those objections were, were not spelt out; only his opinion was.
Suddenly a dozen households were hit by the realization they were going to be thrown out of hearth and home against their will. They cannot even bid for the highest offer; they have to accept what the government decides.
Some other startling information emerged, but belatedly. A few weeks earlier, Mr Shafiullah’ correspondence quotes rule 16 of Punjab Land Acquisition Rules 1983, that if land is not used for the purpose for which it was acquired, it would be resumed by government without compensation and a penalty imposed. What was not clear was from whom – the corporation or the small owners?
Apparently the company has been planning a housing colony named SitaraGarden, since 2011, but later withdrew the proposal because Board of Revenue, Lahore imposed a ban on acquiring land for housing.
Later, Sitara changed the project title and reinitiated their efforts with a ‘proper’ application. How did it suddenly become proper with mere name-change? Did Mr. Shafiullah have a change of heart? If so, why?
Whatever, he dismissed the objection petitions out of hand as being “without any substance and without any force of law” and ordered the land price to be evaluated.
If this case goes through, it will set a dangerous precedent. It denies citizens to keep what they own; the right not to sell if they don’t want to. The government will be legitimizing landgrabbing by coercion. Any rich and politically or administratively well-connected company can started acquiring land perforce from owners who cannot fight back, on the grounds of “public purpose.”
It’s easy to lean on small fry lacking the stomach for long-drawn, expensive, unaffordable legal battles, especially when deep pockets, political contacts and clout can bend or creatively re-interpret the law. We see it all the time.
This article was published in The Nation on 23 January, 2014