Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Will the mafia rule our lands?

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In 2012, the Bollywood epic 'Gangs of Wasseypur', had ripped through the conscience of India. It shocked the viewers in the nation's cinema houses, where the movie was screened.

And likewise, in the neighboring countries. This classic motion picture had adeptly portrayed the mafia's almighty and burly men who had made themselves de facto rulers of Bihar's coal mining industry. The blockbuster movie is listed among the Few that have received a thunderous applause and ovation.

Complacently, we refer to these power pointers, as the criminalized nexus of government officials, elected politicians, vested business interests and other entities comprising of NGOs, and criminal organizations. Included, are the corrupt segments of local law enforcement agencies. The scenario is the same everywhere. One has only to name the countries of our region.

These mafias are highly organized, operating brazenly in the vibrant and charged urban communities of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They are reputed to conduct their businesses with precision, in a sustained manner; through blatant and violent intimidation of the weak and helpless.

Some of us prefer to classify this evil, by virtue of the particular economic sector, which it hooks up to, for purposes of relevance. After all, we are all familiar with the terms of the Land Mafia, Water Mafia, Timber Mafia, and.....

Delhi, Dhaka, Kolkata and Karachi are the most pertinent archetypes of overcrowded cities, which never sleep. Where, you are more than likely to come across local (and corrupt) politicians, who continue to engage themselves against all opposition; in shadowy land deals of the prime and real estate. These well known (shady) deals are often, the talk of the town, conducted in broad daylight.... in the air conditioned mansions of Wheelers and Dealers.

Population has surged dangerously in the region, during the last 50 years. Our large cities have turned into powerful magnets that suck in, the poor and the destitute, from even the remote and far flung locations of the country. They come in very large numbers, in droves and in waves, to seek opportunities, build their lives, earn their livelihood and move on, with life's savings and fresh blessings.

Driven to desperation, these destitute come to our metropolis, to make sincere efforts for a living. Some arrive here for education or medical care, or merely to embrace the magic, these cities have to offer. Mumbai, Karachi, Kolkata and Dhaka have amassed their reputation and shot up to fame, combating hard, to compete for top nominations, among the megalopolis of the world. Seriously, land is now a very scarce commodity, in the chaotic and expanding metropolises of our planet.

The demands for new housing in all countries of South Asia, shot up due to expeditious surge of population. In terms of the Malthusian theory, population had multiplied at a geometric rate of progression. Demand for land and housing, had grossly multiplied in all countries. Plausible reason: sharp rises in home remittance, from expatriate workers; who had embrace overseas employment, during the construction boom in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, for the desperate, poverty-ridden masses of our subcontinent, they were left with no option but to occupy and build shelters on vacant (govt. or private) land, close to city's industrial and commercial zones. The local land grabbers, thugs and the corrupt officials of the Land Department, joined hands with likeminded and corrupt officials of law enforcement. Shanty towns quickly began to take shape, all around our cities. The evil nexus created a rustic landscape of make shift homes, pollution, unchecked sewage, and health hazards. Our refined citizens in the Administration, referred to it as the 'slums'.

It is true that the world's biggest slums are located in the bustling mega metropolises of the subcontinent. In close proximity to the posh Defense Officers Housing Societies. In the last two decades, Karachi produced its globally recognized, quality slum, 'Orangi Township'.

This is Asia's largest slum. Situated close to the country's major industrial hub, it is blessed with a population of 3.80 million souls. It forms the hinterland for cheap industrial and domestic labor. And the breeding ground for crime, chaos and religious extremism.

By far, Asia's second largest slum is located in Mumbai, in the area of Dharavi. It occupies an area of 2.5 square miles and boasts of a population of 3.0 million people. It faces the posh residential district of Mumbai, where're altitudinal, palatial apartments are bought and sold at the highest prices, per sq. inch, anywhere known on this planet.

Behind the beautiful and lavish face of Delhi, lies the ugliest, poverty-ridden slum, in the whole of India. In the background of the lush, green of the US Embassy, lies the Vivekanada Camp, an unauthorized slum, and one of the many, that have surrounded India's historic capital city.

In the dark years of Karachi's chaos and complete lawlessness, rampant and senseless killings had become the order of the day. People were targeted and shot on the basis of their accumulated wealth, political leanings, and religious sects.

People also lost their lives in the hands of under training, new and young recruits of the organized crime. Those, who had joined the camp to be trained in the sophisticated art of shooting to kill. These murders had exposed the dark underbelly of real estate development, in one of the world's fastest growing megacities.

Karachi is home to about 20.0 million souls, two large sea ports and Pakistan's financial infrastructure, that make it, the nation's economic powerhouse. The city's appeal appears to be set for a rise, as China hopes to pump in more $50 billion to boost infrastructure and transport links across the nation. This idea has spurred expatriate Pakistanis, to invest heavily in their home market.

The 'nexus' I described above, managed to 'regularize' (through complicity and connivance) Public land, and dispose of chunks immovable property, to the highest bidder, in the open market.

 Again, public land has become Karachi's most prized and contested commodity, with federal, provincial and local land owning agencies, military cantonments. And corporate entities where formal and informal developers have competed to extract the maximum value. Disputes are settled through bribes, political, and police patronage. Often with a vicious force.

Home prices have doubled every seven years. A listings website in a Karachi has highlighted that land values have jumped 27% since 2016, to a record high, outpacing other large cities and the national average of 6.9%. About 15 different government agencies had been tasked with regulating laws and coordinating development, yet ugly slums have emerged all around the Karachi, with callous disregard to government's efforts of enforcement.

Finally, in 2013, the Army had to step in, to save the country from its downward slide and financial ruin. Thanks to this intervention, the city turned around full 360 degrees. Karachi has won back its freedoms, after two nightmarish decades.

Presently, the city's real estate offers better returns than Dubai and London. Ironically, the city builders managed to acquire land in the outskirts that was occupied and controlled by the feared Taliban militants. A banker and a business tycoon, is building $2.0 billion gated estate, known as the New Nazimabad.

While replicating a similar story of neighboring India, the land Mafia in the large, expanding cities of Pakistan, have exerted a power that overshadows the State, itself. Suddenly, schools and buildings which had been declared heritage sites were demolished. Instead of building more schools, the provincial government, in connivance with the nexus, is now inclined to build high rises, hurriedly approved by the Building Control Department.

Provincial government is certainly not in a mood to invest in school buildings. There is an organized and determined move by powerful and vested interests, to ensure that institutions of learning may be compromised for high yield of profits in the real estate businesses.

What is happening in India is not very different from what appears to be taking place in its next-door neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Rampant corruption is paving the way for violence, lawlessness and and environmental hazards in the country.

There is a Mafia for everything. In the mega cities of Mumbai and Kolkata, the residents are faced with similar forces, who will do anything to grab valuable land(s) under dispute or litigation...a process that takes years for legal resolution among the litigant parties. There is the powerful 'sand mafia' in Mumbai, employed to assist construction and building of high rises all around the city.

Saffron is a high priced plant that grows in the mountains and valleys of Kashmir. It flourishes only in selected and few locations, around our world. The mafia has penetrated the precious fields of saffron, to build high rises. Amazingly, the businesses of the land mafia appear to be flourishing as well.

 In the mountains, India's 'timber mafia' log trees on public land, while in the valleys below, in broad daylight, land excavator gouges out, the banks of India's river Jhelum. Truckloads after truckloads of sand are carted away to feed cement the local manufacturing and construction industry.

To feed the hungry giant's (India) annual, economic growth of around two digits, environmental laws are the worst casualties. These are simply ignored. There is a rush to do what is needed urgently, to keep Mother India's economic engines, in full momentum. Most of the work carried out is illegal or lacking in formal approvals. Not so, but certainly enjoying political patronage.

 Higher ranking officials have conceded that gangs operate with police and political protection. The mafia has enjoyed the support of Police. At times, they have enjoyed the blessings of the government. Therefore, priorities had been quite similar.

The ability to make money through bribes is also a major reason why government jobs in India are highly prized. Social scientists do, however, concede that the system in India is desperately trying to change the culture of impunity. Corruption in societies is mammoth challenges.

 The virus has entered the bloodstream. It is so widespread that people have come to terms and internalized corruption in all its forms. A status quo has prevailed. Chances are that the evils in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are not likely to recede back, any time soon.

Life must go on in India...Pakistan....and Bangladesh. Our futures depend on how we address these complicated issues.

The writer is based in the USA

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