Land sale leads to thuggery

February 21, 1997

AN ANGRY mob of 200 staff at the Quaid-i-Azam University in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad marched on the physics department last month to hurl obscenities and death threats at two professors who exposed a scandal involving university land.

The home of Pervez Hoodbhoy has been stoned and he and colleague A. H. Nayyar denounced as "anti-Islam" and "anti-Pakistani" for drawing attention to a staff housing scheme under which university employees, including senior faculty members, stood to make massive personal profits from the private sale of university land.

QAU lies in an idyllic position at the foot of the Margalla Hills, and its pristine acreage is eyed with envy by the legion of land-hungry bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians and foreigners who make up the elite of Pakistan's capital city.

The scheme received government approval in 1995. Individual plots on a 120-acre site were to be sold to all QAU staff members with more than ten years' service at one 15th of their market value. Within days the cabinet announced that an additional 180 acres at QAU would be allotted to members of the national assembly and senators. In effect 300 of the 1,600 acres granted to QAU under the Islamabad master plan were to be privatised at knockdown prices.

In March 1996, when government surveyors attempted to map out prime sites for the parliamentarians, they were greeted by a horde of university staff armed with sticks, shovels and axes, determined to stop the politicians seizing the best plots.

"I felt enough was enough," recalled Dr Hoodbhoy, who received his PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Land sales were the single topic of conversation in most circles at QAU. There was open talk on campus of selling the plots in the market for huge gains. Educators were becoming speculators. We had to speak out."

Along with Dr Nayyar, a former president of the QAU Academic Staff Association, Dr Hoodbhoy wrote letters and articles and soon the scheme became a national controversy. The two lecturers pointed out that employees who already owned land in Islamabad were being assigned plots, that husbands and wives employed by the university were receiving two plots, that the scheme would leave nothing for employees who had not yet completed ten years service, that the plots would remain in possession of staff members even after they left, and that many of the plots would inevitably be sold at a huge profit to outsiders, leaving the university with neither land nor money.

Proponents of the scheme responded to the criticisms with personal invective. The president of the Academic Staff Association denounced the "heinous propaganda campaign conducted by a handful of miscreants". Posters appeared on campus condemning Dr Hoodbhoy as a "Jewish agent", an "Indian agent", and an enemy of Islam and Pakistan. It was alleged that he had met with the Indian consul general in Singapore and a Mossad agent in Nairobi.

Dr Hoodbhoy, who denied he had ever been to Nairobi or Singapore, describes himself as "liberal, rational, secular, frightened by "religious mania" and with a belief in improved relations with India.

One Urdu poster asked: "Why are they tolerated here? We demand they be forbidden to write in the newspapers or else we shall be compelled to remove them by force." Students who supported the two physics teachers claimed that they could not speak out for fear of faculty reprisals.

Faculty members argued that if bureaucrats, army staff, politicians and journalists enjoyed state-sponsored housing, why not teachers?

The two presented an alternative plan. By selling 100 acres on the open market, QAU could realise a profit sufficient not only to build housing for all staff members but also to invest substantially in the development of university facilities. And the housing and the money would remain QAU property. Their opponents refused to count-enance the suggestion.

The smear campaign was clearly organised with the cooperation and at times the encouragement of the university authorities. Senior personnel instructed low-ranking staff to put up the defamatory notices on official QAU noticeboards. When they complained to the vice chancellor (who has secured the right to award 5 per cent of the plots at his discretion), his response was to warn that they were "acting against the interests of the state".

But experience at other universities confirms the apprehension. At the University of Sindh at Jamshoro, 75 per cent of 200 acres allotted to a housing scheme have been sold to outsiders. The University of Karachi was built in the early 1950s in a remote suburban location. Today the city has enveloped the campus in urban sprawl, and the value of the property has multiplied. University personnel have been coerced or bribed to sell land, on which factories and housing have sprouted.

Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto ordered a probe into the housing scheme last May and a legal challenge was launched by five private citizens.

In December, the court ordered a stop to construction. A day later the caretaker cabinet which had replaced Mrs Bhutto's government scrapped the housing scheme, ordered the return of money collected from QAU staff, and designated an alternative site.

Nonetheless the bulldozers continued working and were only stopped following a confidential appeal to the president by Dr Hoodbhoy. But the money has not been returned and is being used to fund the university's response to the court challenge.

"One of the most amazing sights in the Third World is to be seen here," says Dr Hoodbhoy. "Not two miles from the presidency and the federal secretariat, a public institution is defying the cabinet and the courts."

It was the publication of Dr Hoodbhoy's private letter to the president that led to the angry march on the physics department on New Year's Day. Until then, students had appeared apathetic. But 300 signed a petition and organised a defence force. They told the vice chancellor that he would be held responsible for anything that happened to the two academics.

"It would seem to be an unqualified victory," Dr Hoodbhoy observes, "but I remain fearful."

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