Taking their cue from the Capital Development Authority (CDA), the district authorities in Lahore are also bracing up to launching an anti-encroachment drive in Lahore where, according to a recent study, nearly nine percent of the entire state land (42,858 kanals out of a total of 381,912 kanals to be precise) has been encroached upon by the land mafia.

In Lahore district, the land mafia seem most active in the cantonment area where they have encroached upon 27,887 kanals of state land, while they are illegally occupying 14,311 kanals of state land in Lahore tehsil. A large chunk – rather the major part of the encroached land – 28,765 kanals – belongs to the federal government, while the rest is owned by other agencies of the government, including some 8,944 kanals by the Punjab Government, 1,592 kanals by the Auqaf Department and 3,297 kanals by various other departments.

There are 445 encroachments in areas under the LDA control. Some 185 of these encroachments exist along the main boulevards and roads, five on secondary roads and 255 around various posh markets. The main boulevard Gulberg Market tops the list with 106 illegal possessions of state lands, while Barkat Market Garden Town occupies the second position with 61 encroachments.

The details of land encroachments around other market places are Firdous Market Gulberg 21, Ghalib Market Gulberg 31 and Liberty Market 36. The encroachments along roads under the LDA control include Gurumangat Road 33, MM Alam Road Gulberg 35, Noor Jehan Road Gulberg 23, Main Boulevard Gulberg 9, Mini Market Gulberg 16, Johar Town 8, Model Town Link Road 39, Barkat Market Garden Town 14 and Gujarpura 8.

The encroachment of state lands is, however, a phenomenon which is not restricted to Lahore alone. The situation in other metropolitan towns is not much different either. For example, Karachi is Pakistan’s economic hub, but the land mafia are very strong there. According to some circles, these Qabza groups also indulge in target killings and terrorist activities.

The unscrupulous elements have not even spared the country’s capital city, which CDA had hitherto been branding as “Islamabad, the beautiful.” In Islamabad, one finds various types of encroachments in city centres (Marakiz) and the Blue Area, where some shopkeepers have even erected boundary walls in the common corridors, causing great inconvenience to citizens in moving from one plaza or shop to the other. This causes citizens a great problem at times when the weather is inclement. Some persons have even encroached upon public parks. A full-fledged illegal bazaar, stretching over some two kilometres and brimming with all types of business activities, has come up on the CDA land in the part of F/12 sector facing F/11 sector. This bazaar exists for the last many years and continues to grow as the days and weeks roll by, but nobody’s eye-brows have been raised so far.

The Qabza groups are also visible in Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Peshawar, Hyderabad, Quetta and many others towns. Like a contagious disease, the vice continues to spread, posing innumerable hazards to the citizens in general and to the growth of healthy business and trade activities in particular. However, grabbing of state land and encroachments, particularly in prime commercial locations or around market places, is a menace that continues to grow, often in connivance with junior staff of the departments concerned of the governments.

Encroachments not only mar urban landscape, these also cause severe constraints for commuters and pedestrians, especially women, in market places. Furthermore, encroachments hinder rescue and fire-fighting operations during emergencies, making it difficult for ambulances and fire brigades to reach the affected areas and places on time. Sometimes, these delays prove very fatal and cause tremendous losses, both in men and material. The recent fire in Shah Alam Market Lahore is a case in point.

However, it appears that the state functionaries at the local level follow some unwritten law according to which they have to look the other way if the violation and encroachment happens to be by a VIP; however, if the encroacher/violator happens to be an ordinary citizen, he/she should not to be spared at any cost.

Taking a suo moto notice of land grabbing by ‘Qabza’ group in Islamabad, the Supreme Court of Pakistan recently directed the CDA to take back possession of all such land in the Federal Capital Territory and send progress report to the apex court on a fortnightly basis. In its first fortnightly report, the CDA has informed the court that it has retrieved 7,170 kanals of land from the Qabza groups by February 26th while it is continuing with efforts to pursuing the matter earnestly and with determination.

Most probably, encouraged by the positive results that the Islamabad campaign is yielding, the Lahore district administration has also recently launched a campaign to cleanse the provincial metropolis of all encroachments by mid-April. During the first fortnight of the two month-campaign, the authorities plan to remain soft and confine their activities to persuading and counselling the people holding encroachments to clear up roads and market places of illegal stalls and kiosks of their own volition. However, during the second and final phase, the authorities intend to weed out encroachments by elements who underestimated the seriousness of the administration in cleansing the district from the vice of encroachments.

With a view to achieving better results, the administration intends to use various options and make use of optimum resources for ridding the city of Qabza groups, caring little for political pressures from any quarter. The authorities concerned also intend to seek the collaboration of the local traders and shopkeepers in this campaign, and if these efforts fail then take stern action against those who refuse to vacate stand land voluntarily.

Chief Minister Punjab has stated, time and again, that he intends to transform Lahore into Pakistan’s Paris. The avowed objective cannot be achieved without eliminating the evil of encroachments in the provincial metropolis. If the encroachments are allowed to grow, it is apprehended that even the posh markets of the provincial capital might start giving the look of crowded Sunday/Jumma Bazaars in the not too distant future.

To protect Lahore from environmental degradation and to safeguard the interests of the citizens, one does hope that the chief minister would patronise the ongoing campaign to rid Lahore of the menace of encroachments and fully authorise the officers concerned to take all necessary steps to achieve this avowed objective. If the menace of Qabza mafia is not nibbed now, it can assume the shape of a dreadful monster as it has already done in Karachi. However, if earnest and dedicated efforts are made now, these can yield fruitful results and curb the parasitic growth of encroachments.

But, the campaign should not remain confined to Lahore and Islamabad. Similar campaigns to clear encroachments on state land must be carried out in all towns and cities of the country. However, to avoid hardships to vendors and owners of kiosks, wherever feasible, the authorities should provide alternative sites for business to persons who voluntarily remove their kiosks and stalls from the existing market places.