Rights & Wrongs, Fate of Ashiana housing hangs in the balance

Wheat Fields in Punjab, Pakistan

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LAHOREThe fate of Punjab government’s housing project for low-income people is still hanging in the balance as the Supreme Court’s Thursday order has left the dispute on use of trust land unresolved.

The SC did not vacate a stay order against the transfer of land to the Punjab Land Development Company (PLDC) for the construction of the housing scheme but it allowed the government to continue construction ‘at its own risk’.

Talking to The Express Tribune, a provincial government official said the transfer was in violation of Sections 16 and 17 of the Punjab Waqf Properties Ordinance of 1979. Section 17 states that “a Waqf property shall be used for the purpose for which it is dedicated or has been used or for any purpose recognised by Islam as religious, pious or charitable”.

The Punjab government launched the Ashiana housing project for low income homeless people in January and set up the PLDC to implement it. The plan was to offer subsidised housing to individuals with monthly incomes of less than Rs20,000.

The Revenue Department selected 712 kanals farm and at Saropa Attari on Ferozepur Road owned by the Auqaf and Religious Affairs Department for the scheme in Lahore. The land was a Waqf (trust) property attached to the shrine of Shah Noor Saropa Attari.

The Punjab government provided agriculture land of the same worth to the Auqaf Department at Ocha Ladhay near Raiwind in exchange for the Saroopa Attari land, but this is also illegal as Waqf land cannot be transferred or exchanged and its status cannot be changed, the official said.

PLDC Chairman Sheikh Alauddin denied that there was any anomaly in the transfer of land owned by the Auqaf and Religious Affairs Department or that it violated Sections 16 and 17 of the ordinance. The ordinance allows the use of Waqf land for this scheme, which was meant for poor people, he said.

He said that the exchange of land had been challenged in the Supreme Court, but on Thursday it had allowed the government to continue construction. He said 600 housing units would be handed over to the homeless after Eidul Fitr.

The Ashiana housing scheme offers 3-marla homes for Rs840,000 and 5-marla homes for Rs1,190,000, at monthly instalments of Rs4,500 and Rs7,500, respectively. Only individuals with a monthly income of less than Rs20,000 can apply. Interested buyers must fill out a form provided by the PLDC and submit it with a processing fee of Rs890 at the Bank of Punjab. The buyers are then selected in a draw.

In May, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif inaugurated the construction of 3,000 housing units. Work on 600 units has been completed and 21,000 applicants included in the draw to decide who will get the houses.

Asked to interpret the Supreme Court order of Thursday, advocate Muhammad Anwer Shaheen said contempt proceedings could no longer be initiated against the government for violation of the stay order. However, he said if the apex court’s final verdict was in favour of the petitioner, the provincial government would not be eligible for compensation for the construction it had undertaken. The site along with the houses built on it would then be handed over to the petitioner.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2011.

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