'We will never give them our land': The city for rich that is displacing thousands of indigenous people in Pakistan's Sindh
Last month, while Murad Gabol’s two children were sleeping, police raided his house. “We showed them the papers of our home, but they beat us and locked me up in jail,” Gabol said.
Noor Mohammad Goth, a village in the outskirts of Karachi, had been home to Gabol and his family for generations. “We’ve lived here before Pakistan existed… We got the papers [for our land] from the British when Pakistan was created. This is our land,” he said.
Gabol says that ever since a gated community called Bahria Town started development between the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad in 2013, indigenous lands have been forcibly seized.
Bahria Town Karachi is a privately owned suburb under construction located 45 kilometres outside Karachi on a busy highway that connects the city to the rest of the country. The neighbourhood is being built by the Bahria Town Group, one of Asia’s largest private property developers, with construction projects in cities across Pakistan.
To make way for the skyscrapers, villages on the periphery of Karachi’s Bahria Town have been coerced into displacement
Their Karachi project alone occupies under 46,000 acres (making it three times the size of Manhattan). Bahria Town promises a million members of the elite class access to private and secure supplies of water, gas and electricity. It even has its own golf course, the world’s third-largest mosque, an exclusive block for overseas residents and a private police force.
To make way for the skyscrapers, villages on the periphery of Karachi’s Bahria Town have been coerced into displacement over the past seven or eight years, says Hafeez Baloch, the leader of Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance and a resident of Gadap Kator, a village adjacent to Bahria Town Karachi.
Although Baloch’s village is not occupied, he worries about the impact of large-scale development on the environment.
“There are mountains and rivers here, and there is an international park here, and Bahria Town is planning to put all their sewage there. If they are not stopped, the villages left will not be able to sustain themselves. This is a matter of life and death for us.”
On June 6, Baloch, with other indigenous rights activists and villagers, held a protest outside the neighbourhood. Activists who attended the protest told The New Arab that speeches by the organising committee members were going on when black smoke started rising from the main gate of Bahria Town. They deny association with vandalism.
Soon after, police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, injuring children, women, and the elderly. Some vehicles, showrooms, and buildings inside Bahria Town were also set on fire.
As a result, the police have issued over 28 First Information Reports (FRIs) on terrorism charges and arrested hundreds of people, many of whom Baloch says were not even at the protests.
"There are mountains and rivers here, and there is an international park here, and Bahria Town is planning to put all their sewage there. If they are not stopped, the villages left will not be able to sustain themselves"
Bahria Town’s owner, the billionaire property tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain, condemned the protests as an “act of terrorism.” He also denied any involvement in the evictions.
“Bahria Town was never part of any illegal activities nor [do] we intend to be in future,” he tweeted.
However, in 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court deemed part of Bahria Town’s land occupation “illegal” and ordered an investigation, which ended after the developer offered to pay Rs 460 billion (approximately US $3.1 billion) as settlement for the suburban land. Under the terms of the payment, Bahria Town Karachi will have to pay the entire amount over seven years.
However, Hussain has so far only paid a fraction of the settlement. He has requested delaying future payments, citing losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Pakistani newspaper Dawn.
The following year, Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) seized more than £190 million worth of assets from Hussain, including a £50 million mansion overlooking Hyde Park in London after a settlement in a “dirty money” investigation. The NCA said the settlement did “not represent a finding of guilt” and that the money had been returned to the government of Pakistan.
Bahria Town personnel have not responded to requests for comment from The New Arab.
Mehran Memon, a political activist and educator based in Karachi, says much of the land-grabbing became easy for builders and developers because the government “suddenly” cancelled century-old leases of indigenous farmers in 2013. Overnight, villagers had woken up to Bahria Town bulldozers on their lands.
Although the government has the right to seize leased lands, he said, it is also responsible for facilitating and resettling indigenous populations, but this did not happen.
“Not a penny has been paid to indigenous peoples,” he added.
Dr Lakhu Luhana, the Secretary-General of the World Sindhi Congress, called this an “alarming story”.
“Since the inception of Pakistan, the injustice to [the people of] Sindh started,” he said.
"If you can’t kill a community, if you can’t kill a particular people, then you basically wage war against their resources and possess their land"
Luhana explained that aside from Bahria Town, land grabbing in Sindh has been occurring on a colonial scale for decades by the Pakistani Army and its proxies, which involve the eight phases of the Defence Housing Authority City, Fizaia Colony, Commander City, and others that extend over hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Karachi.
Sindh is the second largest province of Pakistan and home to a substantial portion of Pakistan’s industrial sector as well as two of the country’s busiest commercial seaports. The region also houses oil reserves in the south. According to Luhana, Pakistan’s state and army want to encroach on these resources.
“If you can’t kill a community, if you can’t kill a particular people, then you basically wage war against their resources and possess their land,” said Memon.
“What Israel is doing to Palestinians, like putting up walls and closing villages. That is what Bahria town is doing here,” he added.
According to human rights activists, an alleged crackdown is happening against those who are vocal against Bahria Town Karachi and the forced acquisition of lands and evictions. Murad Gabol and other indigenous community members whose land Bahria Town is being built on say that they are also victims of this alleged crackdown.
“They can jail us, and they beat us too,” Gabol said, “but we will never give them our land.”
Zahra Khozema is a Pakistani-Canadian journalist currently based in London.
Follow her on Twitter: @Zahra_Khozema