Saturday, 13 March 2010

GOR: Walling off Public land for private gain

Those who develop an expertise in the mess of Pakistan, must understand the abuse of power and its associated rentseeking that prevails in Pakistan. One important example of that is the GOR Estate. Let me explain. (For the perceptive there is much to be learnt about the political economy of Pakistan though this example).

Rentseeking Colonial Style

To house the officials that were shipped out of England, the colonial masters—the British Government—built a housing estate (using about a 100 acres of land) about 10 miles from what was then the City of Lahore and called it the Government Officers Residences Estate (GOR Estate). Understandably, the colonial managers built in some luxury for themselves including some clubs sporting facilities and parks for their exclusive use. And for all this the public exchequer was feely used. The homes could only be retained for the tenure of one’s position. Maintenance rules were clear and simple and could not be flaunted.

One would have thought that the independent state of Pakistan that lives in a chronic state of international beggarhood would have dispensed with this colonial luxury. Quite the contrary, Pakistan has developed and expanded this concept. The senior government officials, including, senior judges, ministers and government favorites are all given houses that would be the envy of their colonial masters. These houses have now been expanded and renovated to luxurious levels all at public expense. Utilities are all paid for extensive gardens are maintained by the taxpayer. Interestingly enough, the British houses were simple and simply made according to strict government guidelines. Our rulers cannot live like that.

Many GOR type estates have now been built in many cities and no one has any reckoning of the funds that are spend on this luxury for senior officials.

As the city developed GOR now lies in the heart of the city of Lahore. Unlike their colonial predecessors who recognized the need to stay out of the city, the new masters wish to live in the heart of town in great luxury. In each city they now have built palatial housing for themselves right in the city center. The result is the stunted downtown development in all cities in Pakistan

While the colonials had rules on maintenance and on retention of houses, there seem to be none now in Pakistan. The powerful few keep these houses for a life time. They may get transferred to another station but they do not give up their GOR house. Even when they retire they find an excuse to retain the GOR house. You can imagine the favors that are exchanged to keep possession of these prizes.

GOR Land is private land at Taxpayer Expense

The GOR land is considered to be for the private use of those who run the government without any consideration of the law. For example,

  • 1. There was some acreage in the middle of the estate preserved for a small park. It was converted to a small market some 50 years ago. About 10 years ago totally arbitrarily and with no consultation it was converted to place for holding events for the exclusive use of this elite group that controls GOR. Who paid for this conversion—the taxpayer.
  • 2. While this elite group has inherited the British clubs—the Gymkhana and the Punjab Club—they needed another one right in their midst. So 25 years ago, they converted one of the houses in GOR to ‘private” club for themselves. How were they able to do this? What was the due process? None! No one was told! Who paid for the conversion and the maintenance? You guessed it! The taxpayer.
  • 3. There is a house in the middle of this estate that is supposed to be for the chief justice. Sadly no one wants to live there. Well it is retained as a place for the judges to hold weddings of their children. Again at taxpayer expense.
  • 4. The Chief Secretary the senior-most civil servant in the Punjab has a designated house in GOR. But of late he is not content with one house, He has 2.
  • 5. The Punjab Chief Minister obviously is his boss and cannot be left behind. He has 2 large offices in the housing colony. This is apart from 2 other offices in the city.How he divides himself in 3 is hard to understand. One must feel sorry for President Obama. He only has one office.

This flagrant abuse of public funds for private gain has gone unchecked by people and the media. As a consequence officialdom has got further emboldened to totally appropriating GOR for themselves alone!

Let us appropriate it all: Walled Estate at Taxpayer Expense

Lahore is under attack by terrorists. The officials who are supposed to be administering Lahore are busy securing themselves through a violation of law. They have built a wall around GOR estate claiming that it is private property. The huge wall fortifying GOR and utilizing a large number of scarce police force resources has made the housing estate in the middle of town even more private.

The wall was built stealthily and quickly without consulting any of the neighbors. My house adjoins GOR and suddenly we found that there was a wall in the middle of the road in front of our house. One entrance to our house is within the walled compound and the other one outside. We are imperially told that we were not even owed a consultation.

GOR had several well travelled roads running through it. Those roads have now been fully closed some even converted to grassy parches. There was a school in the middle of GOR for the use of the poor population serving the rich masters of GOR. The school has now been closed.

For decades these officials have been fretting over the traffic flow increase through GOR as the estate is now in the heart of town. Instead of contemplating a move out of town center to make way for much needed commercial development these officials want to develop country estates in the middle of town at taxpayer expense.

Now they claim that GOR and its roads are private property. How does that happens with the taxpayer paying the bill. Only in Pakistan!

The Taxpayer subsidy to Officialdom

To put things in perspective, the country is getting 1.5 billion dollars a year from the Kerry-Lugar aid bill. While it is difficult to establish a market value, I will hazard a guess that if we can move away from this colonial system and stop paying our officials in terms of such wasteful housing allowing a privatization of GOR, over a billion dollars could be raised from the immediate sale and development of the land which in turn would yield a tax flow for years to come.

Taxpayer Helpless to check Privilege and Authority

Pakistanis have got used to not question privilege and abuse of authority. In my view this is one edge of the rule of law and fiscal responsibility.

  • · If we allow officials to use taxpayer’s money for private purposes we can never eradicate corruption and rentseeking leave alone have budgetary sanity.
  • · If we allow government to arbitrarily appropriate public land for private use, we show them the path of corruption.
  • · If acquiesce to the closing of roads and developing private parks out of housing estates, we can never have community and country.

Yes terrorism is a threat for all of us and we need to fight it together. Officials should not have precedence in terms of security. And definitely not through usurping public land and violating due process!

A complicit Media

The free and chattering media has been told to go after Zardari and lay off officialdom. They will never develop a story on issues such as this.