The origins of Karachi’s DHA and its spectacular legal creativity

With an essential history of Cantonment Board Clifton

Reporters call it the “poshest” part of Karachi but the truth is that Defence Housing Authority or DHA is the city’s most impoverished neighbourhood in terms of urban planning as last week’s monsoon flooding so amply proved.  

In this housing authority’s genesis lies the answers to why DHA is so poorly run by Cantonment Board Clifton.  

How did Karachi get a DHA and CBC?
In 1953, Pakistan Defence Officers Housing Authority was formed as a society. When you make a society, it is either premised on welfare or a social setting and there are a limited number of things it can do. If you want to expand on that, then you need more authorization.

The PDOHA’s work was the welfare of its members. Membership was limited to people who were associated with our defence institutions. The fundamental reason was that these people had served the country. It was formed on the basis to allot people land upon which they would build their homes.

By 1977, we entered General Zia ul Haq’s era and by this time the PDOHA had started to run into complications. It did not have a particularly good relationship with the provincial Sindh government. And much like other societies that had been around for three decades or so, its goals had diverged from its delivery.

And then, in 1980, Zia ul Haq passed a Presidential Order to create a Defence Housing Authority or DHA. That DHA was given extensive powers, including master urban planning.

DHA was given a governing body whose members were the chiefs of defence institutions—the Chief of Army Staff, Chief of Naval Staff, Chief of Air Staff. Its chairman was the Secretary of Defence.

Under the governing body was an executive board with serving officers. This executive board was tasked with working on the “sound principles of development, town planning and housing” and it had to regularly report to the governing body. The governing body’s sole prerogative would be to ascertain if DHA was working according to policy or had departed from it.

DHA was given extraordinary powers through this authority. It would make its own rules and would be an authority unto itself. In order to evade the local government system, which looks after municipal works, sewage, drainage, property taxation, water supplies—all the problems DHA experiences today—the Presidential Order split Karachi Cantonment into two. The southern cantonment was renamed Clifton Cantonment and all of DHA’s land at that time, approximately 76 acres, or DHA Phase I today, was handed over to it.

Prima facie DHA’s land was given to the CBC because the society had run into a dilemma. It was a society of serving or retired “faujis”, but it was answerable to Revenue authorities in the Sindh government that taxed it and tried to dictate how it should run in certain respects. So this was brought to a full stop in the 1980s when the CBC was formed and its jurisdiction was granted. 

What is a cantonment?
We have a Cantonment Act, 1924 which defines cantonments in Section 3.
A notification in the official gazette declares that a cantonment will be “any place or places in which any part of the regular forces, or the regular air force of Pakistan, is quartered.” Areas in the vicinity of such places can also be declared a cantonment.
But when this land is no longer being used by those in active service, then this very same Section 3 of the Cantonment Act, 1924 says it shall “cease” to be a cantonment.
You must announce it is not a cantonment any more as well and the land goes back to the federal government. The root of this law has nowhere expressed any thinking that for hundreds of years—even after its shape has changed—that the State’s hold on the land will be in the shape of a cantonment. This is stretching the law.

Regular land versus cantonment
And now we return to DHA and CBC’s separation from the rest of the city’s local government systems, a very deliberate decision. They wanted to be an authority unto themselves. This is one of the reasons why Karachi has fragmented local government and its elected mayor does not have control over six cantonments. The mayor could not have any say in or was not responsible for any municipal planning, drainage, water supplies for DHA and CBC as they had separated themselves in 1980.

To grasp the significance of this departure, allow us to return to some basics of how a place (city, district, country) is run by its government.  

On any piece of its land, a State first counts the number of people living on it in a census. It counts the number of households to sees if there are two or ten people living in one. Then it holds elections so these people can vote to collectively decide their leaders.

This is how a State organizes census circles and blocks and revenue blocks and circles. Then the State extracts revenue from these citizens in the shape of taxes. And then it takes decisions for them on how to run or plan the place. It can say, for example, that it knows 10 people live in an area so they deserve to have an alley. If another area has 100 people they should get a road. All of these decisions are then the prerogative of the government. These taxes are then spent on providing municipal services.

But theoretically a cantonment is exempt from this system—because a cantonment is for active service military people who have separate needs. They have separate specialties, expertise and a separate social order. This is why cantonments are set apart. Cantonment Act, 1924’s Section 3 is centred on the concept of active military use when it comes to defining cantonments.

So Old Clifton may have originally contained some cantonment area. It might have had, at some point in time, a depot, a shed. But DHA Phase I, II, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII and now IX, were never ever in the use of or related to the use of the army. Therefore, to extend the concept of a cantonment to these DHA phases (1 to 8), and to apply cantonment laws to them, is a fundamental legal problem.

Types of cantonment land and how they grew
Cantonment Land Administration Rules, 1937 define the classes of this kind of land which are noted in a General Land Register. (This is kind of like the Revenue register of the Sindh government and records kept with the patwari or mukhtiarkar.)

Military classes of land are A, B and C under the rules. Class A is for active military use.
Class B is what you don't need as such but the federal government needs for military administration.
Class C is all those lands which are not included in these two categories like roads, sewage lines, nullahs, a lot of co-owned land. As the concept of the cantonment expanded this began to include religious sites, otherwise they are counted in B.

Class A land is not easy to dispose off. You cannot plot it and then do something else with it. It is very difficult to use this land for some other purpose. If you were Class A land, you can't just make it Class B. And similarly you can't turn B into A. There are legal complications.
And so, in order to surmount this hurdle, the definition of military land was changed. Consider this:

Cantonment Land Administration Rules, 1937 Rule 5 says, Class A land is used or occupied by the military authorities for fortifications, barracks, stores, arsenal, aerodromes, bungalows for military officers which are the property of the government (not land that can be his even if he is active service)… parade grounds, military recreation grounds, rifle ranges, grass farms, dairy farms, brick fields, soldier and hospital gardens. This gives you a sense of the intention what all of this means. This is land where tanks are standing, or the people who park the tanks stay for a time.
In 1993 there was an amendment to this. Class A 1 land of parade grounds, military grounds, rifle ranges sees the entry of a new item: golf courses. And so this Class A 1 land required or reserved for specific military purposes adds golf courses.

There was another amendment in 2002. After grass farms, dairy farms, rifle ranges there was an addition of: CNG stations.
Then in 2009 another amendment takes place, in which canteen stores department and its entire chicken, meat, vegetables, fish, stationery, grocery, bakery shops, canteens cafes, post office, PCOs, ATMs are all added—along with cinemas. So now, in active military land golf courses, CNG stations, cinemas, hostels, museums, libraries, recreational parks, schools, colleges, artisan training centres were all added…in active military land.      

When did military service or activity take place in DHA Phase I? Phase VIII, Phase II, Phase IV? So what was the justification to declare these areas a cantonment? These are all questions which prima facie are in contravention to the law.

You can make a law flexible but you can only do this to a limit. You cannot move the law from its foundation because then it morphs into an illegal act.

Our prime minister used the words "elite capture". You will not get a better example of elite capture than what the CBC and DHA have been doing together with Karachi for so many years. 

This story was originally published September 4, 2020.





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