x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

'In Pakistan, every official is a mafioso'

Middle-class people find it extremely hard to achieve their economic goals because of interference from vested interest groups.

A worker for Bahria Town at the Golf City housing project near Islamabad.
A worker for Bahria Town at the Golf City housing project near Islamabad.

ISLAMABAD // Corruption in Pakistan is so rife that the average Pakistani is more concerned with that problem than about security, in a country plagued by violence. Vested interests, which have come to be known as "qazba" (possession) groups, have worked their way into every facet of society and reach the highest levels of government, and it is their presence that frustrates Pakistanis more than anything else. A neighbour, "Mr Sahib", the proprietor of a private school in Rawalpindi, said his work has been severely disrupted by the interference of qazba groups looking for money. Unlike the ruling classes, all linked to one qabza group or another, Mr Sahib has pursued simple goals in life - nurture the family, build a home, expand the business, obey the law and pay taxes. But the qabza group has a habit of shifting the goalposts so that it is practically impossible for people like Mr Sahib to achieve their goals without paying protection money to every government functionary and business intermediary who crosses their path. Unusually agitated for an otherwise calm man, he was breathing fire recently after trying to find out how much extra property tax was due on the recently expanded premises of his school. "I wanted to straighten out the matter so I don't get slapped with a backdated bill later. But what the responsible official told me to do was to maintain my tax payments at the existing level and increase the backhander to him," he said. "Instead of paying more revenue into the national exchequer, I ended up paying more to the [him]! That's why nothing works in this country and why nothing ever will!" The school owner, whose real name was withheld to protect him from bureaucratic retribution, is one of the silent majority who just want to get on with life. Two days later, and as many kilometres away from Mr Sahib's home, Malik Riaz Hussain, a diminutive but intense businessman, sat in a smart office and talked about the qabza groups' grip on the property sector, easily its biggest source of income. Having spent 14 years building suburbs of 250,000 homes in the countryside around Lahore and Rawalpindi-Islamabad, he knows what it is to do business with that particular branch of the qabza group. Asked what challenges he foresaw in meeting a commitment of US$6 billion (Dh22bn) to the million Pakistanis who have signed up for his Bahria Town projects, he said: "We've already overcome the major challenge - the land mafia. "Everybody in every institution of the state whose office grants them power is a mafioso," he said, with obvious disdain. Although he does not say so, it is obvious to anybody who has been in Pakistan since Bahria Town emerged in the early 2000s, that he has to meet the inflated expectations of every extortionist on the register in his quest to exploit an obvious business opportunity: providing comfortable homes for middle-class Pakistanis. Mr Hussain, a man of middle-class roots, has, in effect, given physical form to a Pakistani dream, one in which the home's architecture and supporting infrastructure, services and day-to-day functioning meet and, more often than not, exceed the expectations of gated-community living. Yet the point of the exercise has not been to cater to the wealthy. It is to offer affordable, quality housing to middle class Pakistanis. "Our success is that we have worked for the white-collar family. We don't work for the rich," he said. He is particularly satisfied that he has established new benchmarks in a market that is seven million homes short of meeting current demand. "Every other developer has no choice but to match or better our benchmarks because they know their businesses will fail if they don't. Faced with the customer's ultimatum, they've adopted our model," Mr Hussain said. The model of the "Bahria lifestyle", according to its developers, represents not just what middle-class Pakistanis aspire to, but what they believe their embattled country could easily become if, by some miracle, vested interests, domestic and foreign, were to leave them alone. Many Pakistanis see themselves in the light of their Mughal ancestry, and the country's descent into militancy is as much about the frustration of the average Pakistani's individual ambition and quest for self-improvement as it is about religious hatred. foreign.desk@thenational.ae