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Islamabad new city scheme

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An interview with Abbas Sarfraz Khan, Minister for Housing

Jul 17 - 23, 2000

The Minister for Housing & Works, Abbas Sarfraz Khan has assured the affectees of Islamabad new city — a mega housing project started by Benazir government in 1996 — that very soon they will either receive their money back or get the plots as promised. So far his ministry has been busy in examining the various projects launched by Nawaz Sharif government last year under Mera Ghar Scheme. This study has been completed and now the Islamabad new city will be on the top of his agenda.

In an exclusive interview with PAGE, Mr. Abbas Sarfraz said that he was fully aware of the hardship of those who had deposited their hard earned money for residential plots under Islamabad new city Scheme. Most of this money is safe, luckily no money under mera ghar scheme was yet collected from general public but work had been started on various projects with government funds. That needed immediate attention of the authorities to save as much as possible.

The Ministry of Housing and Works took a comprehensive review of all the Scheme under Mera Ghar Schemes. The committee set up for this purpose after detailed scrutiny, approved only 18 projects of the total of 42. The decision was made in the light of detailed study of each project particularly the stage of work and money already spent. Hence the projects that to be completed are ones on which work had already started and progressed considerably or were otherwise found economically viable. Prime Minister Housing authority which was created by Nawaz Sharif government specially for Mera Ghar Scheme has been retained for the time being to supervise the approved projects under the scheme.

The high profile publicity and the big fanfare with which the Prime Minister Housing Scheme Mera Ghar was launched in 1999 perforce, reminded many the mega projects of the New Islamabad City launched in 1996 by the Benazir government and of "Apni Basti" by the Junejo government in 1987 — the two ambitious programmes which went away with huge public money going down the drain.

Former Prime Minister Sharif, inaugurated in 1999 the gigantic 'Mera Ghar Scheme' in all the four provinces and Islamabad amidst ablitz of publicity in press and electronic media. Under this scheme the government proposed the construction of over 500,000 houses for low income groups over the next three years at a cost of Rs.64 billion on 20,000 acres of state land. Initially pilot projects were to be launched on 17 sites in major cities namely Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Multan, Sukkurs, Quetta and Hyderabad for the construction of 19,000 small housing units on state land costing Rs.14.5 billion. For this purpose a new organization known as Prime Minister's Housing Authority, under the chairmanship of lhtesab Bureau Chief, Senator Saifur Rehman, was created Mr. Wasim Afzal a director general in the Ehtasab Bureau in grade 20 and a confidant of Senator Saifur Rehman, who was appointed as Chief Executive of the authority, was reportedly given over 400 per cent increase in his emoluments while under the rules he was entitled to only 20 per cent deputation pay.

A similar authority at the federal level known as National Housing Authority (NHA) with almost similar objectives and terms of reference was already existing. This authority had prepared a national action plan to meet the acute shortage of housing units. The plan of action was duly approved by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his first tenure in 1992 and gave a grant of Rs.100 million for preliminaries for the National Housing Authority. With the change of the government the committed funds were not released. The government of Benazir Bhutto asked the NHA to carry out its programme in partnership with private sector and as a result of which the NHA, in collaboration with some private investors including a construction company of Singapore, launched the Islamabad New City project with a big fanfare. The NHA collected over Rs.300 million from public — poor, needy and shelterless people most of them government servants — as a first installment against promise of plot allotment. The project fell victim to politics. The main Pakistani partner was arrested and the D.G. National Housing Authority was put under suspension and an inquiry was ordered by the caretaker Prime Minister Meraj Khalid in 1997. It was still going on when Nawaz Sharif took over and the inquiry was assigned to Ehtesab Bureau. The D.G. N.H.A., is still under suspension and hundreds of staff members of NHA are receiving their salaries for the last over many years for no work and thousands of those who had paid millions of their hard earned money to the National Housing Authority are running from pillar to post to get a plot or refund of their deposited money.

Out of all these schemes the mera ghar appeared to be most sinister. It was more a money making exercise rather then an attempt to meet the shortage of housing units. Under the 'Mera Ghar Scheme' the houses were constructed on state land to be acquired free of cost. The Prime Minister's Housing Authority (PMHA) had "identified and selected" 5,377.9 acres of land all over the country for this purpose. A number of government departments and civic agencies, which own these lands at 114 sites, were told to initiate the process for transfer of the titles of these lands free of cost to the PMHA. The Housing Authority announced a tentative price of Rs.1500,000 for an apartment of 1500 sqft cover areas which came to Rs.1000 per sqft as construction cost as against the prevailing cost of Rs.450 to Rs.500. It is anybody's guess who was going to pocket this deference of about Rs.500 per sqft.

Mr. Abbas Sarfraz disclosed that the present government took a prompt decision not to grab land belonging to Railways, PIA and other civic bodies. Negotiators are on for the purchase of land required for the 12 project approved under Mera Ghar Scheme. Rest of land has been handed over back to the real owners, he added. Now the price of an apartment with 1500 sqft covered area will range between 10 to 11 lac including the cost of land. Services of senior army officers has been acquired to head the PM housing authority as MD to look after the affairs of the authority. Only policy matter will come to him as Chairman or to the Board.

The minister agreed that there was overlaping and waste of public money in hawing two organisations i.e. the NHA and PM's Housing authority — for the same type of job. Merging process has already been initiated and soon there will be only one organization under the Ministry of Housing and Works, he added.

Agreeing with the PAGE that there was chronic shortage of Housing units in the country, Mr. Abbas Sarfraz disclosed that the present government fully realised the gravity of the situation and his ministry was working on plan of action to be launched soon for a permanent housing programme in collaboration with the private sector in an open and transparent way. National Housing Authority, with credit line from commercial banks may also sponsor some strategic or pilot projects purely on no profit no loss basis. With full time MD for P.H.A., I will be now comparatively free to concentrate on more important policy matters. A new Housing Policy comprehensive of all problems will be ready by the end of the current month, the minister added.

Mr. Abbas Sarfraz agreed with PAGE that working of the Ministry of Housing and Works was most unsatisfactory and needed drastic surgery. System of allotment of government owned residential accommodation and hiring of private houses for government employees has lot of loopholes which were fully exploited and manipulated by the unscrupulous elements of which there is no dearth in the estate office and public works department. Complaints of bribe and malpractices are common. Government accommodation is allotted on other consideration than merit. The minister said that he was fully aware of what was going on as he had personally received lot of complaints from various quarters. He has done his best to check there malpractices and there has been a visible improvement also. He however, felt that whole system has to be changed. Personally Be believed that government cannot possibly construct residential accommodation for all its employees. Few thousand government houses against the demand of millions create a host of problems leading to favouritism and corruption. Government should provide only temporary accommodation for a period of 2/3 months to government employees on transfer. The government may sell, through public action, all remaining houses and thereby raise huge funds which can be provided to National Housing Authority to be used as bridge finance for launching new housing schemes. The ceiling of rent allowed to different categories of government employees for hiring private houses through estate office should be paid to them as a part of their salary and they should themselves find the residence for them and their family. There will, then, be no need to have a large estate offices, the Minister observed adding that he is planning to prepare a working paper on these lines for the consideration of the government.