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May 15, 2017



The slum lords of Islamabad

Associated with the names of two great heroes, Bani Gala is the most celebrated slum in the land of the pure. It is a rich-man’s-slum where some of the most influential people of the country have defeated the poor at their game. Even a cursory glance at this area can reveal how Pakistani state and society works.


The zoning laws of the Capital Development Authority (CDA) forbid any construction in this area. There are added restrictions because it is too close to Rawal Lake and housing in this area can contaminate water in the lake – water that is the lifeline for the residents of Rawalpindi.

Mohsin-e-Pakistan, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, was the first to grace this place with his presence. He built a house overlooking the lake in 1992. The CDA moved its bulldozers but gave up after some huffing and puffing as the nation and its media stood united behind their hero. After all, the man who gave us the bomb had a right to break some laws and regulations here and there. The nation was not aware at that time that their hero had already extended this logic a bit too far.

A decade later, another benefactor of the nation, Imran Khan arrived on the scene and built his mansion on the top of a hill comprising 300 kanals of land. His presence proved a game changer as it gave a brand name to this place. Within no time, a whole illegal settlement took shape around his house.

My friends living in the area may feel cross that I am repeatedly using the word slum for their posh locality. It is a ‘slum’ because all constructions in this area have been made in violation of the capital’s Master Plan; the buildings and streets follow no pattern or blueprint; there is no running water, piped gas is not available to most houses and the residents have to arrange their own transformers to get electricity.

The CDA submitted a report in the Supreme Court last week stating that 122 buildings, including the residence of Imran Khan, constructed in the Bani Gala area were in violation of the ICT Zoning Regulation 1992 and they needed to be demolished.

While hearing the case, Justice Umar Ata Bandial remarked that the court could not order the demolition of 200 houses. The court also questioned what the Capital Development Authority (CDA) and Islamabad Capital Authority (ICT) had been doing while illegal construction continued in Bani Gala.

Bani Gala has followed a familiar pattern followed by slum dwellers all over the world. They try to give the state a fate accompli by inhabiting a large area in collusion with government officials while relevant institutions remain ‘unaware’. Evicting hundreds or thousands of poor from their shelters can be an unpopular and politically expensive step for any government. As a result, the state has to reconcile with it in one way or the other. In Pakistan, many such settlements are regularised and some basic amenities are reluctantly extended to residents.

However, the state can be harsh when it wants to. In 2015, a slum in Islamabad – called the Afghan Basti – was razed to the ground despite protests by residents and human rights activists. This place had housed more than 2,000 families for decades. In 2002, the CDA forced residents of the Sri Saral village to vacate their houses to make way for construction of the D-12 sector. When villagers resisted, police killed two protesters and registered an FIR against more than 430 villagers, including women, on charges of killing their own men, abducting policemen, inciting violence and abetting terrorism.

The people displaced from Tarbela were not fully compensated till 2003, some 25 years after the dam was completed. And even then the final settlements were not made out of a sense of justice or love for the people who had sacrificed everything for this project, but because of a World Bank conditionality, which demanded payment of compensation money to over 1,700 families as a precondition of the $350 million loan for the Ghazi Barotha Hydropower project. Also due to a World Bank conditionality, Ghazi Barotha became the first large-scale project in the country through which people were compensated ‘generously’. Later, when the project had been completed, NAB arrested a number of affectees for taking more money from the state than they deserved. I am not aware of what happened to them. Perhaps, they joined the Q-League and everything was settled.        

Bani Gala is no Sri Saral or Ghazi Barotha. It is a land of heroes. The wealth created by heroes through such illegal activity can be mindboggling. Imran Khan bought this property for Rs50 million. Today, a kanal of land in the area is worth Rs7 million. That makes his total property here worth almost Rs2,100 million. Ironically, this is almost equal to the worth of the controversial apartments owned by the Sharif family in London. This escalation in prices has mainly resulted from illegally converting a non-residential area into a residential area through sheer force of personal influence.

Something similar was done by the Sharifs in Jati Umra when they acquired land at throwaway prices in the 1990s and developed the area at the cost of the state. I remember the public mood in Multan when during a year much of the development budget of the Multan Development Authority (MDA) was diverted to building the Raiwind Road that passes in front of the Jati Umra estate. Just as rich people in Sri Saral learnt to make sacrifices for their poor brothers and sisters now living in Sector D12, the rich people of Southern Punjab have also learnt to make sacrifices for their poor brothers and sisters in Lahore.

Islamabad enjoys another unique distinction in the capitals of the world. Here, hundreds of the most influential persons of the country double as vegetable farmers. In more blunt terms, they live in mansions that have been leased out as vegetable farms. Another national hero, Pervez Musharraf, owns one such farm where he lived for a short period before fleeing from justice.

In 2011, the Supreme Court took notice of the illegal use of farms and the CDA started ‘action’ against them. We haven’t heard much on the topic ever since. Clearly, how can hundreds of mansions worth billions of dollars be razed to grow cabbages and pumpkins.

My friends in the PTI often tell me with moist eyes that Imran Khan has sacrificed everything he had for the nation. Maybe he should donate this land to the nation for extension of the nearby botanical garden which has been severely impacted due to development here.

As far the case is concerned, I totally agree with my lord that two hundred houses cannot be razed. How can we allow a government department to raze two hundred houses in a slum?


The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: @zaighamkhan