To be concluded Okara: military's poor case

14-06-2020 By: Farhatullah Babar

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At A press conference on Saturday in Islamabad the Director- General of the Remount Veterinary and Farms Corps (RVFC) tried to explain the military's position on Okara farms but in doing so only exposed wide holes in the army's case.

The DG claimed that the land was "handed over to the army for defence use" in 1913 but refrained from clearly stating that the land was actually leased to the military for 20 years only. It is the property of the Punjab government and was never handed over permanently to the military. The lease period has since expired but the land continues to be occupied by the military.

The military has been making bids in the past to have the land permanently transferred to it but failed. Its strongest bid came during General Musharraf's military government when the federal defence secretary, a retired general, wrote on February 1, 2000, a letter to the Punjab governor, another retired general, pleading the transfer of land to the military. "The land being the property of the Punjab government provides an occasion for interference by the revenue authorities and litigation by tenants", the letter said and went on to ask "necessary instructions be issued for permanent transfer of land free of cost in favour of the ministry of defence".

The Punjab Board of Revenue wrote back, informing the secretary defence that permanent transfer of land would be against the laid down policy and therefore was not possible. According to this policy, the Punjab Board of Revenue reminded the federal defence secretary, that "in case where the land required to be transferred is in occupation of the provincial government, the amount payable by the central government will ordinarily be the market value of the land and buildings". The letter further said, "The existing policy framework, it will be appreciated, does not favour acceding to the request stated in your communication".

How can one accept the position, which the military seems to have taken, that the land leased in 1913 for 20 years had been transferred to it permanently? The DG, RVFC, also said that the military had undertaken development projects for the residents' welfare and the tenants had now recognized the benefits of the contract system. It was only a handful of 'miscreants' who were misguiding them and telling them not to accept the contract system and to insist on proprietary rights.

"The lessees were being empowered in the implementation of the development projects in their communities," he said least concerned about the fact that tenants wanted proprietary rights and not development works just as the military government was least concerned that the people of Pakistan want restoration of the Constitution and not merely the local bodies.

"The uplift schemes will help improve the standard of living of the lessees", he said. Sounds like saying that the local government development works will improve the lot of the common man, so forget about the niceties of the Constitution, the president in uniform and the LFO.

The casualties among the tenants were dismissed with contempt. "Only four people had lost their lives and not 17 or 18 as was misreported in the press", as though four unexplained deaths of tenants was of no consequence. There was not a word about the post-mortem reports on those killed, the inquiries held and any follow-up action. Why this fuss about only four deaths who after all died in the line of duty to provide fodder for the ponies and milk and butter to the humans?

And why did the farm management switch over from the lease system to the sharecropping system? There was a ready answer to that question: "The net profit from the farm income had reduced from 41 to 16 million rupees per annum due to lesser share, lack of interest, lower productivity and malpractices. Trees worth about 20 million rupees have been cut and sold illicitly by the lessees". So it was decided to introduce the lease system to increase the profitability, the general said.

The logic thus advanced is that the military's profitability must be increased even if it required dispossessing the tenants, barricading their villages and even shooting them to death. The military has made its other industrial ventures profitable by obtaining massive tax concessions. If profitability of farms cannot be enhanced through similar tax concessions, there is another way to go about it: dispossess the tenants.

The tenants insist that the neither they nor the sharecropping system is responsible for the decreasing profitability of the farms. And the Auditor-General of Pakistan agrees with them.

The special audit report (1999-2000) on land management of Okara military farms by the Auditor-General has identified nine cases of mismanagement (read corruption) involving Rs 236 million and recommended investigation in each case to fix responsibility for the losses and disciplinary action. But nothing happened.

In the preface to this report the Auditor-General of Pakistan Manzur Hussain, has lamented: "The findings and recommendations contained in this special report were communicated to the Principal Accounting Officer in May 2001. Neither any reply has been received nor he DAC meeting could be held by the Defence Division within the prescribed time schedule".

If investigations had been held as asked in the AG's report, it would have become known as to who had illegally cut and sold trees worth Rs 20 million - the tenants or the management?.

The DG also spoke about how in February 2001 the Lahore High Court rejected the tenants' petition challenging the contract system. He read out what he said was the operative part of the judgment: "the petitioners are the lessees of the land and the period of their lease has since run over".

He chose to ignore the most important operative reality, namely that in case of lease on a crop-sharing basis, even when the lease period expires no tenant can be ejected. The court has not ruled that the tenants could be ejected only because their lease period had expired. The tenants refuse to accept the contract system as it vests in the management the right to eject them. That is the core issue.

Cliches like 'terrorism' and 'miscreants' is the last refuge of the wielders of brute force and state authority. The DG, RVFC, said that 'miscreants' had injected the fear of eviction into the minds of the lessees to 'terrorize' them. He wanted the tenants not to heed these miscreants and should not feel terrorized.

How can the tenants not feel terrorized when a whole nation feels terrorized by the hijacking of the civil institutions despite solemn oaths taken to preserve, protect and defend those very institutions? Who believes in mere promises when solemn oaths are broken with impunity?
The writer is a member of the Senate.
Daily “DAWN” Tuesday, June 10, 2020


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