LAHORE: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has demanded an urgent and thorough investigation into the land acquisition practices in Karachi by the largest real estate developers in the country and expressed concerns over reports of use of the state’s coercive powers to deprive rightful owners of their land.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Commission said: “A report by the Dawn newspaper on Monday, titled ‘Bahria Town Karachi: Greed unlimited’, seems to corroborate previous accounts that HRCP has heard of forcible takeover of land, arm-twisting and downright blackmail in a bid to acquire land from the poor residents in dozens of goths of Malir district of Karachi by the country’s largest real estate developer, which also prides itself for being the largest private housing society in Asia.

“The media report describes grabbing of communal and other land in the goths, displacement of residents, as well as practices that can only be described as kidnapping for ransom, and the use of the administration’s coercive authority and police raids to evict poor goth residents, to persuade them to abandon their land or to sign that away for a pittance, and forcible takeover of collectively owned spaces.

“These are very serious charges, which HRCP hopes and expects would be thoroughly investigated immediately, not least because of the alleged role of the police and of individuals linked to the political party in power in Sindh. It is important to stress that the probe must be more than a fig leaf aimed at hushing things up. HRCP emphasises that the forum investigating the scandal should be easily accessible to the affected population and must make a genuine effort to understand and document their experience and plight.

“Any collusion of the police or political parties with the real estate developer to cheat the goth residents out of the land they have lived on for over a century in some instances deserves to be particularly examined.

“The scandal in Malir district also highlights the importance of regularising the goths, which house tens of thousands, and where lack of a formal title and lack of recognition of customary land right seem to have emboldened the real estate developers preying on poor goth dwellers. It also underscores the value of the work done by the Orangi Pilot Project, and particularly its former head Parveen Rahman, from 2006 until her murder in 2013, to document and strive for regularization of the goths.

“This does not in any way suggest that unethical and illegal practices in land acquisition are confined to any one real estate developer, and that is why safeguards and state regulation are all the more important to check the land mafia and real estate developers from making money by targeting the poor.

“The state’s inability, and to a great extent, its lack of interest in addressing the housing needs for the poor is already well established. It would be a tragedy if it turns out that it is outsourcing its muscle to grab land to be developed for housing the affluent at the cost of local residents’ ruin and displacement.

“The sordid affair should train the spotlight on the state’s supposed role as a regulator that should watch out for citizens’ interest. The available complaint and redress mechanism must also be looked at to understand why illegal practices that were not entirely a secret until a newspaper ‘broke’ the story went on unchecked.”