Perween Rahman was returning home one evening in March 2013 from her job as head of the Orangi Pilot Project, which for years has pushed land title claims for Karachi’s poor, when she was shot three times by a gunman.
Rahman died as she was rushed to hospital by her friend and colleague Anwar Rashid. “He was a sharp shooter,” said Rashid, now 71 years old and white-haired, but still a director of the OPP, pointing to his throat and chest to indicate where Rahman was hit. “This is because of the land—the police, the mafia, all involved.”
Her death exposed the dark underbelly of real estate development in one of the world’s fastest-growing megacities.
Karachi is home to about 15 million people, two large seaports and Pakistan’s financial infrastructure, making it the country’s economic powerhouse. Its appeal is only set to rise as China pumps in more than $50 billion to boost infrastructure and transport links across the nation, spurring Pakistanis abroad to invest in their home market.
“Public land has commonly been illegally regularised and sold,” Brussels-based conflict watchdog International Crisis Group said in a report. “It has become the city’s most prized and contested commodity, with federal, provincial and local land-owning agencies, military canton-
ments, corporate entities and formal and informal developers competing to extract value.
Given the fiscal stakes, disputes are settled by bribery and political, bureaucratic and police patronage, and even deadly force.”
Tapping into the Boom
House prices in Pakistan have more than doubled since 2011, according to Zameen.com, a listings website. Karachi values have jumped 23 percent since 2016 to a record high, outpacing other large cities and the national average of 6.3 percent—though some of that cooled when the government started taxing real estate transactions last year.
Some 13 different government agencies are tasked with regulating laws and coordinating development, but slums have sprung up across the city with little regard for any of these. Ethnic clashes and gang wars festered since 1947, when the first wave of migrants poured into the city of 450,000 following Pakistan’s violent partition from India.
A military clean up in 2013 has to some extent pushed out political militias and insurgent groups and, on his first visit to the city as prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, last month vowed to continue action “against terrorists belonging to banned organisations, target killers, extortionists, street criminals and land mafia.”
Karachi’s real estate in recent years has offered better returns than Dubai and London, according to tycoon Arif Habib, who is building a $2 billion gated estate in the Naya Nazimbad district, neighbouring an area that used to be controlled by Taliban militants. One of his units said that it has filed an application with the government to buy an extra 900 acres to expand the project.
Habib also pioneered and listed Pakistan’s only real estate investment trust in 2015, offering a stake in one of Karachi’s most prominent malls and office towers. Developers including Habib and rival builders such as real estate baron Malik Riaz Hussain and the military’s property arms, are tapping into the price boom.
Most of the development is coming at the higher end of the market, crowding out middle-class families. The Karachi-based Urban Resource Centre estimates that more than 100,000 houses are required in the city every year to stem the shortage, yet less than 40,000 are being built by the formal sector.
“Pakistan is short of housing and that shortage is increasing day-by-day,” said Habib. “Land grabbers also make problems
Rahman’s family and associates suspect her work mapping Karachi’s poor districts and helping residents gain land titles put her in conflict with powerful criminal networks.