The escalating housing crisis is rapidly gobbling up Pakistan’s farmland, which may have cascading effects on the country’s food security in the years to come.
Increasing population and housing needs have turned large chunks of green land, not only in big cities but in small districts, into concrete jungle in recent years in the northeastern Punjab provinces and south of Sindh, which are considered the two main bread baskets of the country. that.
Standing outside of a fenced housing scheme in a village 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the northeastern city center of Faisalabad, it’s hard to imagine that modern villas are built on agricultural fields, which produce wheat, sugar cane and other seasonal crops. vegetables, apart from being forage for livestock until a few years ago.
Guarded by savvy security guards, this is one of hundreds of similar schemes that have recently sprung up in and around the country’s textile hubs on farmlands and gardens over a decade.
“Hundreds of farmers have sold their farms to real estate developers in recent years, which has resulted in this form of luxury villas in and around the city,” Nadeem Shahid, a villager, told Anadolu Agency.
Real estate developers, he says, are offering farmers three times the market price, a temptation that is hard to ignore.
“Now [after selling farmlands], it’s not just people like us but the farmers themselves who buy flour, flour and vegetables from the market, ”he said.
“I don’t know how long the remaining peasants will fight back?” Shahid said, pointing to a nearby field where a group of farmers plowed for the next harvest.
The situation is no different in the state capital Islamabad, the commercial capital of Karachi, the cultural center of Lahore and other cities, where most of the lush green land and forests have been converted into housing schemes.
According to Shaukat Ali Chadhar, general secretary of the Pakistan Kisan (farmers) council, a non-governmental agricultural research and advisory organization, about 20% to 30% of arable land is in Punjab province, which constitutes 65% of the country. total food needs, have been converted into industrial units and housing schemes.
In Lahore itself, he said, 70% of agricultural land has been converted into housing and industrial units, followed by Gujrat with the ratio of 60%.
“In Lahore, the remaining 30% of arable land is safe for security reasons only because of its location near the border with India,” he said.
In other agricultural districts in central Punjab – also known as merchant Punjab, such as Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura and Kasur, 30% to 40% of arable land has been sold to real estate developers and industrialists, he added.
Land tenure ratios, he observed, are still satisfactory in southern Punjab and the northern districts of Sindh, which together currently produce more than 50% of the country’s wheat, sugarcane and cotton.
The booming sale of arable land and the government’s “discouraging” attitude towards farmers will cause serious food safety problems in the coming years, Chadhar warned.
“Agriculture is no longer a for-profit business in countries like Pakistan, where governments tend to fill less pockets rather than lucrative and encourage the entire agricultural sector,” he said while criticizing the government’s decision to import wheat to overcome it. possible crop shortages.
“The government imports wheat from Ukraine and Russia at much higher prices but is not ready to price that support to local farmers. That is [government] discourage farmers, force them to sell their land and look for other businesses, “he said.
“If this trend is not checked immediately, remember my word, we will face serious food security problems in the coming years,” he warned.
Asked if there should be a ban on the sale of agricultural land for commercial purposes, he said: “How can we ask or expect from small farmers not to sell their land when the government doesn’t give them incentives, and at the same time they get triple the price.”
Voicing food security concerns, Javed Humayun, joint senior secretary at the Ministry of National Food Research and Security said the government was “worried” and “fully aware” of the growing phenomenon of development on agricultural land.
“Deliberations are being held to find a solution to this serious problem,” Humayun told Anadolu Agency, noting that there is currently no law prohibiting the use of agricultural land for residential purposes.
The government, he said, has already supported the idea of building multi-storey buildings in cities to overcome the housing crisis.
Arif Hassan, a Karachi-based urban planner, views the whole phenomenon as “unnecessary.”
“Building these housing societies has nothing to do with state housing issues. They are not meant for the poor or low-income people but for the rich, who consider it the best way to launder their black money or buy land for investment purposes, Hasan told Anadolu Agency.
Last April, the government announced there would be no questions about the source of income in case of investment in the construction industry.
If the government wants to solve the housing problem, said Hasan, it will have enough land to develop cheap housing schemes for the poor, even in big cities.
“In Karachi alone, the government owns 4,000 Acer lands, where they can develop low-cost housing schemes to benefit the poor, who deserve it,” he said.
Issues related to the environment
Recently, images and videos of a truck filled with logs and mango trees cut down to build a housing scheme in northeast Multan went viral on social media networks, drawing outrage from environmentalists and residents.
Multan is known as Pakistan’s “mango town” due to the production of several well-known fruit varieties, most notably Chaunsa.
In addition, the government’s plans to build a new city on twin islands in the Arabian Sea have drawn harsh criticism from environmentalists, who see the ambitious project as a “serious” threat to the region’s entire ecosystem.
Located 3 nautical miles west off the coasts of Karachi, Bundaal and Bundu, it serves as a natural fortress against cyclones and tsunamis as well as being a popular destination for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds from Siberia.
The government plans to connect the islands to the Karachi coast via a bridge after turning it into a luxury offshore development.
It all comes as Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government receives credit for its widely publicized “billion trees” project aimed at mitigating climate change and environmental problems, which the South Asian nuclear nation has long faced.
“This is a very dangerous phenomenon because it will not only affect national food security but also the environment,” Shabina Faraz, an environmental expert based in Karachi told Anadolu Agency.
“Pollution and smog have reached alarming levels due to unplanned urbanization. Further development in forests and agricultural land will leave us nowhere [in terms of the environment],” she says.