By: Abdul Sattar

During my university days, I used to buy fruit from a man who had a small fruit stall in North Karachi. I often chatted with the lean, tall man with dark eyebrows, wheatish complexion and a Sultan Rahi style moustache. His name was Raheem Baksh and he was from the Seraiki belt of Punjab.

He toiled day and night to meet both ends. Twenty-six-year old Baksh had a flair for Bollywood movies and would often talk about actors and actresses. He aspired to become an actor but was reluctant to admit it. I always found him humming either Bollywood or devotional songs.

Raheem’s small stall would often be removed by local anti-encroachment authorities, but every time it was razed he would set it up again and start with new vigour. After 1998, though, he disappeared from the area.

While working as a journalist in 2001, I happened to attend a pro-Afghan Taliban rally in Karachi. There I noticed an angry looking man in a black turban with white stripes, sporting a long beard, holding the flag of a sectarian outfit and chanting anti-American slogans.

After the rally, as I got nearer the guy, he immediately recognised me and I realised it was Raheem. Thinking that I was also one of the participants of the rally, he launched into a vitriolic attack on a certain sect while also mentioning a number of Jewish and American conspiracies to destroy the Muslim world. Tired of his harangue, I sought to rescue myself from this gathering. His transformation from a follower of Sufi saints to that of ultra-radical jihadis left me flabbergasted.

Pakistan has witnessed the closure of thousands of factories over the last four decades. No substantial addition to industrial units was seen since the 1980s. In the land of the pure where over 40 million people live below the line of poverty, 5.9 percent are jobless and 35 percent of the peasants are landless, people have no option but to find means of livelihood themselves. Many of them set up stalls, kiosks, roadside thatched hotels, cabins or sell things on push carts to feed their families; and it is the same poor lot that are uprooted in the name of anti-encroachment drives.

The Capital Development Authority in Islamabad recently devastated the lives of a number of such hapless people by removing their small vegetable, tea, fruit, fast food stalls in the G11 area. The scenes of this anti-encroachment operation were heart-wrenching – a young cobbler from insurgency-hit KP, whose family was devastated owing to the Taliban, beseeching officials not to remove his small iron box, a gloomy looking middle-aged Kashmiri vegetable seller pleading with them to not throw the produce ha had bought early in the morning, a young boy running after the CDA vehicle to try and retrieve what little he owned in the world. These poor souls had hardly occupied 200 to 300 yards area on the side of a footpath inside G 11 Markaz, leaving enough space for people to walk easily.

A sage once said, “Written laws are like spiders’ webs, and will only entangle and hold the poor and weak, while the rich and powerful will easily break through them.” In the case of our country, this seems to be correct. Take a Rs50,000 loan from banks and they will chase you to the grave.

This while over 200 influential defaulters with political connections have gulped down billions of rupees but nobody can dare nab them. Get an illegal electricity connection for your small hut or dilapidated house in a slum area and expect a raid by the power company within no time. But such swift action will never target those landlords, businessmen and industrialists that the government’s own reports say are involved in massive power theft.

Go on a strike to demand a raise in wages or implement the minimum wage law announced by the government and you will end up in jail under the anti-terror law. The conviction of several labourers in Faisalabad and other parts of country is a testament to it. Demand property rights for the land that you have been tilling for over 100 years, like the peasants of Okara, and you will be labelled anti-state.

One may argue over what possible harm there can be in removing illegal encroachments. The problem does not lie with the invoking of anti-encroachment laws but with their selective use. These poor souls at the G11 sector had hardly occupied a 200 to 300-yard area on the side of a footpath inside the G 11 Markaz, leaving enough space for pedestrians. The company of a famous construction tycoon of the country occupied 1542 kanals of state land worth around Rs2.3 billion in Islamabad. Can one even imagine CDA officials handcuffing a watchman or peon of this company, let alone the tycoon himself? A respected religious leader converted a plot that was secured for a research institute into a commercial plot, causing a loss of Rs462 million to the national exchequer. But the religious leader roams about the federal capital delivering lectures on honesty and piety.

Over 4,229 acres of railways land, worth Rs92.78 billion, has been occupied by various departments of the provincial and federal governments. Do we have a right to know what happened to this land?

The story does not end here. A number of famous expensive hotels across the country have built concrete in the name of security on what used to be state land before 9/11. A number of elite institutions in the federal capital have turned empty government land into undeclared parking areas.

The drive to move expensive schools, offices of companies and hotels from the residential areas of Islamabad miserably failed. A number of mosques and religious seminaries have been set up on green belts and other lands owned by the state but no CDA official is willing to spring into action, fearing a backlash from the religious right. On the other hand, the slums at Sector I-11 were razed to the ground within no time because the toiling residents of this settlement had no connection with powerful political parties.

If a government cannot provide jobs to millions of people, at least it should provide them space to set up small stalls on state land. And if any anti-encroachment drive is to be carried out, it must be for all. It should not target only the less privileged but should also be against those who consider the law a tool to be employed against the weak only.