QAU’s land grabbed — again

CIVILISED countries meticulously adhere to rule of law and hold public property sacred. They also treasure education institutions, particularly their better ones. On the other hand, morally and culturally backward countries are run by the whims of despots and robber barons, both big ones and little ones. They have little interest in educating their people, their well-being, nor care for future generations. In such countries, public institutions are weak because their heads are vulnerable to inducements such as promotions, appointments or unearned money.

Tragically, sacrificing public well-being in Pakistan happens in the blink of an eye. Epitomising this is the new threat to Quaid-e-Azam University’s (QAU) rapidly diminishing landholdings. Last month, a large tract of land inside the university was wrongly and illegally seized by the mighty maker and muscular enforcer of Islamabad’s zoning laws, the Capital Development Authority (CDA). Weeks earlier, the project had been re-inaugurated by PM Shehbaz Sharif who urged its completion in record time. A year prior to that, the very same project had been announced by then-PM Imran Khan.

And so days ago, CDA’s bulldozers began tearing down the university’s carefully nurtured forest and levelling the ground. Their goal is to build a highway that will allow heavy traffic bound for Murree to traverse through the university. Thus amputated, the campus will forever be split into two non-contiguous, non-communicating parts. Aesthetically and environmentally, the decision to despoil Pakistan’s most beautiful and quiet campus is criminal. Pakistan’s most beautiful and peaceful campus will have been destroyed.

This land seizure is morally indefensible. Without exception, vast tracts of land have been granted by the government of every country known for good higher education. Land is QAU’s only major asset. But now that CDA has captured the land, the development of future departments, laboratories, and student hostels stands imperilled.

Quaid-e-Azam University’s prime land has been illegally seized by a government agency in Islamabad.

The CDA’s action is also legally indefensible. Although it claims having obtained permission from QAU’s vice chancellor, those affected — teachers and students and the wider public — were not consulted. In another country, the university’s administration would have sided with the university’s interests rather than with land grabbers. But loyalties here are easily bought. And so, seeking to please the government, the QAU administration kept the matter tightly under wraps hoping that no one would find out before the bulldozers arrived. The ploy worked. But now that the news is out, resentment on campus is spreading.

On technical grounds, the envisioned highway is a wasteful luxury. Pakistan is presently piteously supplicating the world for flood relief funds but, at the same time, is building yet more costly roads in a city with more road miles per capita than any other in Pakistan. A much cheaper option is to build an overpass raised above the existing Murree Highway. So why not do that?

It turns out that the needed overpass is opposed by shop owners who have illegally narrowed the existing road. And so CDA has opted for highway robbery — instead of confronting them it has chosen to snatch the land of Islamabad’s oldest public university. Further, build so fast that it becomes irreversible. In an uncivilised country, stealing wealth from influential people is hard but dipping your fingers in the public till is dead easy.

Although the CDA has promised giving compensatory land “elsewhere”, it has not given any written guarantee of where or when. For QAU to get adjacent land is impossible because there is no unoccupied land in the vicinity. More ominously, CDA expects that QAU will be responsible for evicting encroachers and squatters from the land yet to be given — a clear impossibility. To understand this, we need a bit of history.

Way back in 1966-1967 Islamabad University — later renamed Quaid-e-Azam University — was located in Rawalpindi. With the new sister city of Islamabad coming up fast, a decision was made to relocate the university at the foot of the Margalla Hills. Thereupon 1,709 acres were allocated by CDA. After due official formalities, the requisite sum was paid from the university’s budget and a receipt obtained. On Jan 26, 1967, CDA issued an official map establishing the university’s boundaries.

Let’s fast forward to 1996. By this time, land prices had shot up. Many hungered for QAU’s choice land, including prime-minister Benazir Bhutto who sought to reward her cronies in parliament by offering them plots on campus. Made available at a fraction of the then market price, the land’s value was expected to further multiply with time. Potential resistance from QAU teachers and employees was short-circuited by offering them smaller plots — also vastly underpriced. Parliamentarians and university teachers rushed to pay their first installments and solemnise the transaction.

Fortunately for QAU, Bhutto’s land-grab scheme was defeated. Public interest litigation, with pro bono help from eminent lawyer Abid Hasan Manto, ultimately helped a few QAU teachers foil her plan. Instead, teachers were given plots elsewhere in Islamabad. But 10 years later, the land grabbers returned — this time surreptitiously.

Notwithstanding the detailed contour map issued by the CDA in 1967 (reconfirmed on Jan 24, 2017), the land records held by patwaris were stealthily altered to reduce QAU’s acreage by an astonishing 264 acres! In addition to this mysterious land loss, large chunks of land have been visibly eaten away by constantly expanding encroachments. The total land loss is estimated at a staggering 450 acres. The university’s administration looked the other way.

In January 2019, aware that his political opponents could be neatly nailed for grabbing QAU land, Imran Khan ordered bulldozers to destroy a palatial home built upon QAU land by an influential of the PPP. But hours after his house’s boundary walls began getting knocked down, mysterious phone calls from “up above” halted the operation. Khan promptly U-turned.

There are, of course, massive land grabs in the country and that of QAU’s isn’t the biggest. But this university is barely three kilometres from the presidency, prime minister’s secretariat, and Supreme Court and thus has high visibility. When those sitting at the seat of power calmly perpetrate wrongs in clear view of all and with impunity, they probably reckon that in this Islamic Republic no one cares about the public good. If they have judged correctly, then Pakistan’s future is bleak.

The writer taught physics at QAU from 1973 through 2021, the longest in the university’s history.

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