Military Commercial Ventures & Judiciary Displeasure on Cantonment Land Misuse

by M. Wasim

The Mission Statement of department of Military Land and Cantonments on their official website is stated as, “To ensure pro-people, efficient local governance in Cantonments and effective defense land management”. However, the Supreme Court in a recent hearing regretfully remarks that commercial use of cantonment lands is a matter of ‘embarrassment’ for both the judiciary and the military establishment.

Arguably, over the years the armed forces have become major players in Pakistan’s real estate business. They have constructed urban housing societies for elite on land specifically allotted for defense and strategic purposes. While almost all the cantonments of the country have got into the habit of making markets and commercial plazas on state land for monetary gain.

Judiciary’ Displeasure on Military Commercial Ventures

Headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed, a three-judge Supreme Court bench that has taken up a case relating to the illegal use of cantonment board lands in Karachi, wonders “why the army has to venture into these projects”. Managing cinema halls, wedding halls or huge shopping malls, petrol pumps or housing societies on military lands was not legally sustainable as those lands were not meant for commercial activities, the court has remarked. Yet, this state of affairs is happening across the country on all the cantonment lands.

Moreover, the chief justice also highlights that three bases meant for the air force in Karachi are being used for commercial activities besides wedding halls and hotels have been developed at the naval base on Share a Faisal, Karachi. Even the Canteen Stores Department (CSD) – a subsidiary of the defense forces – has been turned into open commercial department stores.

The conversion of cantonment land into private zone is said to be contrary to very mandate of the Cantonment Act, 1924 and the Land Administration Control Rules, 1937 and also was in violation of various provisions of the Constitution. The court during the hearing therefore, observes that the lands acquired for strategic purposes has to be surrendered back to the state the moment the lands were used for commercial gains other than the defense purposes.

Armed Forces Ambitions for Real Estate

The military, including its serving and retired members, own massive tracts of land in rural as well as urban centers. They believe that the distribution of land amongst military personnel, particularly within the various housing schemes, denotes the defense establishment’s superior capacity at managing resources. Yet, the Supreme Court regretfully observed, that the army officials purchased such lands and then sold it to others. Later, the same plot was purchased by a number of individuals to build houses worth several millions.

There has been a noticeable boom in the value of urban real estate in the country since the last two decades. Armed forces are one of the largest beneficiaries of that boom as they have engaged in the practice of converting land titles from state land to private property, besides various commercial ventures in cantonment areas. 

According to details revealed in a news report, main cantonments of Pakistan include Lahore (12,000 acres), Karachi (12,000 acres), Rawalpindi (8,000 acres), Kamra (3,500 acres), Taxila (2,500 acres), Peshawar (4,000 acres) and Quetta (2,500 acres). Rarely any Cantonment remains without commercial features. In fact, Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Peshawar cantonments are no longer restricted army areas. All Askari Housing societies had also been built on cantonment lands in the metropolis. Most of the properties have already been resold to civilians. A conservative estimate of the worth of the cantonment land in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta is approximately 300 billion rupees.

What Next in the Future

The apex court has observed that the lands acquired for strategic purposes had to be surrendered back to the state the moment the lands were used for commercial gains other than the defense purposes. However, there have been a few times in the past when governments have made tentative efforts to address this thorny issue. In 2014, a parliamentary committee was set up to examine the defense ministry’s use of land for commercial projects. Some reports by the auditor general also pointed out similar misuse by various branches of the security establishment.

But nothing changed on the ground so far — even in the face of specific orders issued by Justice Gulzar himself in 2019 to bulldoze various commercial ventures in Karachi.

However, this time the defense secretary assured the court during the hearing that the services chiefs had decided not to allow further commercial activities on cantonment land. Let’ see what happens in coming days.


Editorial, Infocus

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