Expecting berries from acacia trees

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

The elite and the rulers here are socially, politically, economically and temperamentally programmed, geared, fine-tuned and cultivated for rampant and uninhibited loot and plunder of the exchequer, the people, the resources – in short anything that will bring them profits. The saleable commodities include their consciences, the national sovereignty, the peoples’ rights, decency, decorum and even their souls if a handsome profit is expected.

Therefore, it is not surprising that now the priorities of the state are other than the welfare of the people because their pillage and plunder has now increased in scope and magnitude and has been raised to an art form in which the elite indulges with élan and abandon. The more windfall profits they can illegally acquire, the more their insatiable greed is whetted. Their propensity to plunder has spiralled totally out of control quite beyond the inadequate mechanisms that were supposed to keep such predatory depredations in check. The loot and plunder is becoming more organised and systematic, it seems they have learnt a lesson or two from the follies of the past rulers that saw ‘red warrants’ being issued against them.

In this article I will just collate news reports to present a few examples of what is going on in this benighted and Godforsaken country. The troika of the Generals, the politicians and the bureaucrats are vying with each other to acquire the highest and the largest possible profit from real estate, sale of assets, businesses and other devious deals. Naturally the structure and work capability of their institutions have suffered irreparable and irreversible damage and they are simply not capable of ever returning to the virgin utopian state being demanded of them. 

Earlier this year a report said, “Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz will preside over a meeting of the ECC to look into the question of creating a ‘land bank’ that would also feature un-utilised state land, including land in possession of military, railways, ports etc.”

A spokesman said, “The government is considering a major initiative to unlock the potential of millions of acres of state and private land for industrial, commercial and housing use under a pre-defined land acquisition and disposal mechanism.

He said the government planned to develop such state land by providing basic facilities like gas, water and electricity and fix a price depending on its location. The land would then be provided to the investor who would be required to pay 10-15 percent of the whole price as down payment and the remaining 90 percent on the basis of deferred payment.”

So it seems that the decision has been taken at the highest level to legalise the unbridled despoiling of country’s greatest asset in connivance with firms of doubtful integrity and standing, the only obstacle being their share from the deal. At times the authorities in their anxiety to clinch a deal disregard the minimum of decency and decorum required to give the most corrupt deals a semblance of dignity and respectability. Remember the Steel Mills, more of it later.

A July 2006 report said, “The Punjab government, on the instructions of the Centre, is all set to acquire by force about 1,200 acres of prime agricultural land in the Sheikhupura district at a much lower than the market price for a Mercedes-Benz assembly plant by a locally-registered, but hitherto unknown firm under license from the German manufacturer, Daimler-Chrysler.

The law, Punjab Land Acquisition Act of 1894, allows the government to take over private land for public use against compensation at market rates, but not for private business, the lawyers said.

Informed sources said the area under acquisition was beyond the needs of an automobile plant because it also involved 57 acres for a golf course, 50.5 acres for a five-star hotel, a 478-acre race track and 99 acres for expansion.

The DRO, Sheikhupura, notified in the Punjab gazette on February 7, 2006 that, “It is hereby notified that land in the locality is likely to be required to be taken by Coastal (Pvt) Limited…for the construction of assembly plant of commercial and military trucks and cars…”

Subsequently, on June 19, the board of revenue (Punjab) approved land prices recommended by the District Price Assessment Committee for the 1,200 acres and fixed Rs 125,000 for 64 acres, Rs 300,000 for 430 acres, Rs 350,000 for 657 acres and Rs 425,000 for 47 acres. On June 24, the Deputy District Officer, Land Acquisition Collector, was directed to proceed further.

Before the project could take off, the residents of Kot Pindi Das, over 1,500 affected persons would be affected – who are on the verge of being forced to hand over the land to Coastal Private Limited for Rs 484 million at the rate of Rs 400, 000 per acre – organised themselves as the ‘Anjuman Kissan Mutasrin-e-Mercedes-Benz’ to protest in Lahore and Islamabad. Before this the Government of Punjab acquired a 305-acre piece of land for the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore, at a much higher price of Rs 800,000 to 1.2 million per acre under the same Act and did not raise any objection considering its clear nature of ‘public interest’ for providing technical education. 

In brief, the government purchases 305 acres for Rs 317.3 million for a public sector university at about an average rate of Rs 1 million per acre and now compare it with 1,200 acres for just Rs 484 million at an average rate of Rs 400,000 per acre for a business concern in the same area.

Honda Company had privately purchased six acres of land in Sheikhupura. Its total cost was Rs 12 million at a rate of about Rs 2 million per acre and that too a couple of years ago, he said.

On June 15, the Minister of State Umar Ghumman had announced that Daimler-Chrysler and Coastal Group would invest $ 5.85 billion in Pakistan by starting production of Mercedes-Benz trucks, both commercial and military, buses and Mercedes cars of various types to create a vendor industry. The group would set up its plant on 1,200 acres near Sheikhupura ‘provided by the government’. The investment would create 5,000 jobs directly and indirectly.

A local representative of Coastal Limited, when contacted, said the company had been stopped from issuing any statement in the press about the project. He, however, said President Musharraf was personally pushing the project and had informed the company officials during a meeting on May 10, 2006 that he would himself inaugurate the plant on completion, perhaps in April-May next year.

However, a company official, who requested anonymity, said the total investment to be made over a period of five years would amount to $ 1 billion and “not $ 5.8 billion as announced by Ghumman”.

Surreptitious and sneaky deals are the norm here because corrupt Generals, politicians and bureaucrats abhor transparency. There will hardly be a deal in the ‘Land of the Pure’, which is untainted and unsullied by the interests of someone in the above named troika.

About the Steel Mills the less said the better because there was an involvement of the top guns, as is proved by their anxiety to dispose it off and their wrath at its annulment by the Supreme Court. In May 2006 a report said, “Representatives of more than 50 labour, political, social and human rights organisations expressed their strong reservations over the process of the privatisation of the Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM). They pointed out that only a day before the auction was held, a $ 130 million steel factory, Al-Tuwairqi Steel Mills, was inaugurated and a piece of 220-acre land was obtained on rent from the PSM for the new concern. They added that 45 million cubic feet gas and 180 megawatt electricity was also sanctioned for the group.

Speakers pointed out that the Rs 300 billion worth concern had been handed over to the private sector parties at a throw-away price of Rs 21.75 billion. They claimed that under a preplanned conspiracy, it had been handed over to favourites.

They alleged that it had already been decided to hand over the PSM to a consortium of Russia’s Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works Open JSC, Saudi Arabia-based Al-Tuwairqi Group of Companies and a local firm Arif Habib Securities, whereas the bidding process was for its privatisation on March 31 was just an eyewash. They wondered that the auction, which the Privatisation Commission had taken one whole year to prepare for, lasted just 30 minutes.

They pointed out that the present value of the PSM land, at the current rate of Rs 20 million per acre, was around Rs 92 billion, whereas its other assets had been estimated at more than Rs 150 billion. Furthermore, the new owners had been given an inventory of Rs 7 billion kept ready in stores, besides finished products of nearly same amount.”

These reports expose the government’s obsession with the acquisition of land and sale of assets for the sole purpose of benefitting themselves and their favourites with the astronomical windfall profits these deals give. With specious, spurious and fraudulent sale and acquisition of assets, the moral bankruptcy of this regime stands utterly exposed – not that the previous ones were any better.

With so much power and pelf at their disposal and their insatiable quest for more, one can hardly expect the corrupt rulers, the army, the elite and the political leaders to even think about the welfare of the people and expecting the same from them is akin to a Sindhi proverb, ‘Baburan Khaan Bair Ghuran’, meaning ‘Expecting berries from acacia trees’. Anyone expecting berries from acacia trees needs to have his/her head examined at the earliest.

(to be continued)

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur has an association with the Baloch rights movement going back to the early 1970s. He can be contacted at mmatalpur@gmail.com

This article was first published on 30 October 2007

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