Land reforms – 28 Mar 2023

FOLLOWING its struggle for freedom from the Dogra rulers and accession to Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan experienced a low point when, under the infamous Karachi Agreement, it was categorised as a disputed territory of Kashmir state. This subjected the region to an indifferent bureaucratic structure and constitutional limbo. Isolated due to its remote location, GB`s strategic importance only became apparent when China smashed through the lofty mountains to build the Karakoram Highway.

GB enjoyed a legacy of religious education and interaction with the Tibetan and Central Asian civilisations. After partition, its residents also connected with educated GB-origin settlers in Shimla and Mussoorie, who flocked to Pakistan after 1947. This development, along with the social uplift undertaken by the Aga Khan in GB, boosted local literacy levels.

Educated residents now realised that having wrested control from the Dogras, they had gained the right of ownership to all lands and natural resources of GB, and that the agreements between the British and Sikhrulers stood defunct.

Land ownership rights are a highly sensitive issue but have been treated in a cavalier fashion, with little effort to tackle the shortcomings of the existing Dogra system, which rests on discriminatory laws and traditions compromising the rights of weaker segments. Most of the common land was opaquely termed khalsa sarkar. In 2017, when a small area of land defined as khalsa sarkar was allotted to CPEC, no compensation was extended to the people, leading to a law-and-order situation.

For the first time, the Pakistani government realised that ownership and usage of land could not be resolved through the existing system. A land reform commission was formed by the PML-N government, but no definite reforms emerged. All credit goes to the current chief minister, who tasked the chief secretary to draft a comprehensive law ensuring transparent procedures for establishing the equitable rights of locals to usable land. The chief secretary formed a team of young, committed and qualified officers posted in GB to work on various aspects of the existing legal framework for land management.

Interacting with numerous stakeholders and reviewing impediments, the team also examined customs determining the parameters of usage of common land.

These efforts resulted in a two-day conference attended by the commissioners and DCs of GB. Before drafting the final law, the officers were asked to consider: a) a review of existing acts and rules; b) historical and critical analyses of the legal and institutional set-up; and c) land settle-ment using modern technologies and modernisation of the land record system, keeping the public interest in mind.

The core team has produced a draft law addressing all aspects of land management in record time. The 41 sections of the bill comprehensively cover all key concerns of GB residents. Section 2, which deals with definitions, has eliminated all grey areas open to exploitation.

The division of the land into two broad categories of `partible` and `impartible` provides the foundation for the proposed legislation, while also addressing fundamental challenges. Defining what constitutes government land, the bill puts to rest the issue of the general misuse of the term `khalsa sarkar` to deprive the locals of their land rights. Similarly, forests, riverbeds, lakes, glaciers, mountains, common road networks and areas of common recognised land have been assigned to the category of impartible land, thus ensuring environmental protection and common use. There are detailed formulas to allocate partible land to the local population transparently.

For land apportionment, provincial,division and district authorities have been created with representation from elected assembly members and civil society.

Through collective decisionmaking, theseauthorities are expected to ensure merit and transparency in the apportionment of partible land after the determination of rights of the locals and for resolution of any future disputes.

Unfortunately, some sections for reasons of political point scoring are critiquing this people-friendly initiative by conflating it with land management via the defunct State Subject Rules. There is a failure to realise that Dogra Raj rules or law stand abolished with the liberation of GB.

In case there are any concerns, we should highlight these and propose solutions rather than debunking this excellent initiative. Due to similar petty political interests, we missed a historical opportunity for the integration of this region as a federating unit on a provisional basis. In case there are any genuine proposals for warranted amendments in the draft bill, these should be taken up in the ongoing consultation process instead of creating doubts in the minds of the people on unfounded logic. • The wn~ter, a former IGP, Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.

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