Housing Societies on Agricultural Lands
Agriculture, which is often called the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy, is faced with numerous challenges including poor seed quality, substandard and costly inputs, imbalanced use of fertilizers, an excessive use of pesticides, soil infertility and soil erosion. But, one challenge that is becoming a source of serious concern is the mushrooming of housing societies that are increasingly eating up our fertile lands.
1. Housing crunch
A mounting housing crunch is fast devouring Pakistan’s agricultural lands. Amidst a fast-increasing population, housing needs have increased manifolds. Population growth, migration from rural to urban areas and the deterioration of existing homes is driving the shortage of houses, especially in urban areas. Research estimates suggest that the current housing shortage is around 10 million, (expected to grow to 13 million by 2025) out of which nearly half is in the urban areas. As a share of the population, this scarcity is one of the highest in comparison to other South Asian countries. The housing gap in Punjab – Pakistan’s largest province – was estimated at 2.3 million units in 2017 and is expected to skyrocket to 11.3 million units by 2047.
2. Windfall profits
Agriculture is no longer a profit-making business in countries like Pakistan, where the governments tend to fill the pockets of a few rather than benefitting and encouraging the whole agriculture sector. The only profitable industry in the country seems to be the developing housing societies. Setting up a housing society is a lucrative business due to the windfall profits it entails. Housing societies exist on the ground from the day the boundaries are demarcated. The physical movement of men, materials and machinery is always visible to the people, unlike many other businesses conceived and concluded in offices.
3. Easy money
Going by the fact that farming is no longer a profit-making business, real estate developers offer the farmers triple the market price, which is a temptation hard to ignore for the farmers who are increasingly selling out their holdings to real estate developers. Owing to government’s apathy that has further added to the misery of this class, the farmers are actually forced to sell out their farmlands and look for other businesses.
4. Status symbol
Human beings consider new shiny skyscrapers and sprawling gated communities as yardsticks of development and progress. Status-conscious people invest their monies to boast of having plots in a famous housing society.
5. Influential realtors
Businessmen dealing in these housing societies are mostly serving retired civil and military men who had been before in the business of car dealing just 30 years ago. This business is running, owned, and looked after by a particular clas,s therefore it is not helping the overall economy of the country. How can we demand or expect small farmers not to sell their lands when such a strong group, along with real estate tycoons, is in the business?
If we see the major cities like Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Bahawalpur and the small towns, establishment of housing societies is rampant with the developers and the policy makers least bothering to the emerging challenge of national food security.
Punjab, referred to as the ‘food basket of Pakistan’, has lost 20 to 30% of its fertile land while 70% of farmlands in Lahore alone have been replaced by housing societies and industrial units without proper planning. The situation is no different in the nation’s capital Islamabad, the commercial capital in Karachi and other cities, where large sections of once lush green fields and jungles have been turned into housing schemes. Since, Pakistan is already facing the issue of low agricultural productivity as compared to other countries in the region, shrinking fertile coupled with climate change would be more challenging.
Rapid depletion of agricultural lands in Sindh also is a serious concern as eradication of agricultural lands and setting up of housing societies on them was dangerous for agricultural economy and environment. The shortages of important crops like wheat, Cotton & Rice may also occur
The increasing population and housing needs have already turned large swathes of green lands, not only in big cities but in small districts, into concrete jungles in recent years in northeastern Punjab and southern Sindh provinces, which are considered the country’s two main bread-baskets. By developing societies at fertile land, we compromise bio-diversity, landscaping and irrigation infrastructure. The farmers have to toil for years to make land fertile and it is unjust that when this land starts giving production to the optimum, the owners sell it to developers to earn more money. Here are some threats posed by the mushrooming growth of housing societies.
1. Climate change
If the trend of housing schemes on agricultural lands continues unchecked, increase in environmental pollution would become inevitable in a few years. This will further add to climate change that has recently wreaked havoc in Pakistan where catastrophic floods have caused a loss of billions of dollars. In addition, dwindling green cover means higher urban temperature. The environmental implications of this activity are already visible in the shape of air pollution, ground water depletion and overall rise in temperature. Regression of Lahore’s Air Quality Index is nothing but a fallout of the dwindling green cover. Moreover, temperature in many cities of the country hit a new high during the summers this year.
2. Low productivity
Since Pakistan is already facing the issue of low agricultural productivity as compared to other countries in the region, shrinking fertile land coupled with climate change would be more challenging. For example, in Pakistani Punjab, the average per-acre yield of wheat is nearly 31 maunds as compared to 45 maunds in Indian Punjab. Same happens in case of other crops wherein the produce is lesser than other countries in the region. This will lead to food insecurity which is already a formidable problems in Pakistan.
3. Food insecurity
The fast-increasing sales of fertile land and the government’s “discouraging” attitude toward farmers are going to lead to serious food security issues in coming years
The Ukraine crisis has triggered a debate that countries must not be dependent on others for food security because Ukraine, which provides over 60 percent of wheat to the European market, is closed virtually to transport wheat outside of its land. Pakistan bought over 60 percent of its last year’s important wheat from Ukraine. The Food and Agriculture Organisation has already released a warning that the global situation of food security is in danger.
Even in this grave situation, the luscious fields of Punjab, which were used for harvesting essential food items and housing trees that bear tropical and sub-tropical fruit, are being transformed into concrete jungles. The never-ending housing spread is fast devouring large swathes of fertile agricultural lands, thereby jeopardising national food security. The unplanned expansion of cities on fertile land is also damaging fruit plants as witnessed in Multan where hundreds of mango trees were cut down for using the land for housing purpose. In the race of constructing housing societies and earning more money, mango trees have been eliminated on hundreds of acre fertile land. Besides fruit orchards, most of the land adjacent to city areas is used for vegetables cultivation. With the development of housing societies on this land, we shall face shortage of vegetables.
Playing havoc with the food security of the country while providing almost nothing to the majority of the population of the country, real estate tycoons are beyond the law of land and they can shave away jungles, fertile lands, and fruit gardens with the direct help of the state and laws always go in their favour.
4. Social fragmentation
These posh gated elite communities serve to alienate the poor and make them fall a prey to inferiority complex. The gated housing communities in Pakistan occupy vast tracts of land and later develop them for luxury high-end living, making it unaffordable for much of the middle and lower-middle-income classes. This would lead to rich-poor divide which is always like a time bomb.
In 2019, Punjab government banned the development of new housing on farmlands.
The National Climate Change Policy of Pakistan, in its Urban Planning & Waste Management section, has suggested a policy measure to ensure proper “Land Use Planning” and encourage vertical instead of horizontal expansion of urban housing projects. In February this year, the Climate Change ministry not only urged the provincial governments to ban housing societies on agricultural lands but also advised them to follow the National Climate Change Policy to promote vertical growth in the urban areas to protect agricultural land from increasing construction activities.
In June 2022, Sindh Environment Minister Ismail Rahoo directed the officials concerned that setting up residential societies on agricultural lands should be stopped. He said that due to water scarcity, heat wave and climate change in Sindh, the production of important crops was being adversely affected. He observed that most of residential societies on Agricultural land were being made without completing the legal requirements.
The way forward
To discourage this activity, there is a need to take the bull by the horns by imposing a complete ban on the conversion of agricultural land into housing societies.
Moreover, the government must incentivise the farmers by giving subsidies on seeds and fertilisers. The government needs to roll out microfinancing schemes for each crop so that the farmers may not have to opt for loans from the greedy middlemen. Moreover, measures need to be taken to give the small farmers unhindered access to market. The pace at which agricultural lands are being sold and housing societies are cropping up suggests that the days are not far when people will literally fight over food grains and there would be chaos. After all, housing societies cannot be converted back into farmlands.
Keeping in view the housing crisis and the looming food insecurity, we need to adopt a multi-pronged strategy. On the one hand, we need to enhance productivity and identify land for constructing more housing units, one the other. Rising trend of urbanization and establishment of housing societies at fertile land would be lethal for agricultural sector. Before establishing new cities, there should be proper study of the site, ecological balance and presence of underground water. Moreover, every society must be directed to ensure sufficient tree plantation in these settlements. A strict ban on conversion of the agricultural land into housing colonies or industrial estates and introducing vertical housing in the cities, while shifting the industrial units to non-cultivable areas like Thal desert is the need of the hour. It is imperative for the authorities to devise a mechanism wherein the developers develop societies to meet the need of housing units but not at the cost fertile agricultural land.