ISLAMABAD, April 2: Businesses benefited from the World Cup frenzy last week but none like a building industry giant that allegedly used it to grab land defying court orders and civil rights actions.
People of Mauza Sal Kether in the foothills of Murree claim that the Mohali clash was two days away when massive blasts shook their village. It turned out that the management of Bahria Town was blasting rocks in disputed land for its controversial and long contested Golf City scheme.
“That was no way to detonate explosives â€“ without any warning and intimation,” Numberdar Mohammad Ikhlaq of the village told Dawn .
“Besides causing scare, the flying debris and stones injured a large number of our people and cattle.”
Most of the inhabitants of the 250-house village believe that the very purpose of the blasting was to terrorise them into giving up their rights on the land Bahria Town wants for its Golf City.
While the villagers had been fighting for their rights over the land in the court since 2007, the Punjab Forest Department and the environment watchdog World Wildlife Fund (WWF) joined the resistance to Bahria Golf City recently and claim to have obtained stay orders from the courts against its construction in hill forests.
Meanwhile, the Punjab Environment Protection Agency has scheduled a hearing on the impact of the Golf City scheme – that has been in the works since 2005 – for April 4.
Master Mohammad Javed, chairman of the Bahria Town Affectees, admits that Rs750,000 were received for surrendering 3.5 kanals to Bahria Golf City for “the right of way” through the village land.
“But they are not doing justice to us. It was exploitation,” he said.
“First they tried to intimidate us by using big names like that of Maj Gen (retired) Shaukat Sultan who is some official in the project, then they tried to forcibly acquire 659 acres of our land which also includes shamlat,” he claimed.
Shamlat is the land that collectively belongs to a rural community for shared benefits to all members of the community, like grazing cattle, acquiring firewood from the forest on it and establishing graveyards.
The concept of Shamlat is centuries old. Before the partition of India, the Hindu communities maintained thick clusters of trees on their Shamlat lands, in what constitutes Pakistan today, for their fuel and cremation needs.
Col (retired) Khalid Masood of the Bahria Town management however asserts that the Shamlat lands in Murree area were abolished in 1966 under some government regulations and that land for the Bahria Golf City project was purchased from individual owners who inherited the Shamlat land. But the villagers allege that the management had forged land purchase documents.
The dispute is pending before the district and sessions court judge who has granted a stay on land acquisition.
Col (retired) Masood told Dawn that he was “not aware” of any court stay orders on the project which, he said, had more than 3,227 kanals “clear of any dispute”. Work was underway in that part, while only a small part, where an elegant hotel has to be built, is under litigation, he said.
He accused the local people of going back on their commitments and deals. “We have proof of the compensation that we paid them,” he said.
Master Mohammad Javed however admits to a payment of Rs750,000 for the 3.5 kanals of “right of way”.
“That amount was not for the whole village,” he said.
Apart from the villagers, the Golf City project is at odds with the environmentalists and the forest department.
Col (retired) Masood claimed the dispute over 25 kanals of the land of Punjab forest department had been settled through a swap deal but officials of the department have denied any such deal. In fact, they said, the department had sued the Golf City for encroaching on forest land.
The WWF also has petitioned the Lahore High Court (LHC) against any possible land swap. “It is a logical action. Otherwise, it will set a precedent for land grabbers to occupy forest land and give any piece of property in exchange,” said Dr Ejaz, Deputy Director General, WWF.
“It takes years to develop a forest and this area is hundreds of years old how can one believe that the new land will support growth of plant and animal life.”
The WWF has also said that the land occupied by the Golf City is the watershed area for Simly Dam. The city is another ecological disaster in the making if the forests are cleared from this spot, according to the WWF.
As the Rs14 billion ultra-modern leisure Golf City project makes progress in the face of all the resistance, nobody seems to be serious in understanding why the 1,500 inhabitants of Mauza Sal Kether are so desperate to save their 250 houses, two schools, three mosques and 18 big and small graveyards.
Apart from losing their land, the compensation being offered to them amounts to peanuts when compared to the market value of the land in the picturesque area.
According to Nambardar Ikhlaq, the project management is offering Rs100,000 per kanal, with the warning that the management can get the same by offering police Rs20,000 per vacant kanal.
“As the average land holding in the area is between 5 to 10 kanal the real dilemma for us is where we go with that little money to resettle,” he said.
“Do we go begging in Islamabad or add another slum to the city?”
Forest is the part of lives of the people Mauza Sal Kether. For generations they had been guarding and protecting the forest and its fauna and flora for their subsistence.
For the villagers like widow Rakhtaj, the thought of relocating is particularly worrisome.
She came to the village from Kashmir after marriage. She knows only grazing cattle, collecting their dung and broken branches for fuel and live on the meagre wheat and maize harvest of the village.
“This area is very remote. With the development activity (of the Golf City), we hoped life would improve for us. But these giants have arrived to snatch whatever little we have,” she said.