Islamabad must revisit and revise its current policy on land allocations to senior military officials.
In recent days, there has been much debate about the 90 acres of prime real estate allocated to former Pakistan Army chief General (retd.) Raheel Sharif. The gist of the issue is already known:
- Roughly half of the 90 acres, we are told, he got as a four-star general, the rest as Army chief.
- We are also told that this is not unprecedented, i.e., every Army chief is entitled to get this post-retirement perk. [NB: this means that if we were to have regular, 3-year retirements of Army chiefs, which some of us have always advocated, we would be worse off in acreage terms.]
- On the basis of the calculation for land, one can safely assume that all chairmen joint chiefs of staff would also get nearly 45 acres as four-stars and possibly the same acreage—or more—for holding the CJCS office, technically the senior-most.
- The provincial government(s) have no say in gifting such lands. There’s a Border Area Committee that earmarks these large swathes in collaboration with General Headquarters and the provincial revenue departments simply record/register the allocation(s). [NB: it should be evident that the procedure is non-transparent and cannot be rationalized or debated since it is embedded in some arcane, undemocratic rule(s) that, presumably (?), cannot be legally challenged.]
- Under the circumstances, and since the allocation is legal, everyone must shut up.
That sounds, technically, right. If there’s a rule, or perhaps a law, you must suck it up even if it sucks. The problem is, many states have had bad laws and customs and bad laws have a bad tendency of creating anomalies and distortions. In other words, bad laws need to go. The only way to overturn them is to debate them and challenge them on certain rational principles and to strive to create transparent procedures and equitable norms.
But, wait, there’s another slight problem here: as the rule goes, a former lieutenant general and Corps Commander tells me, “Every officer is authorized land if he meets the criteria. The maximum allocation now is 30 acres. Maybe the chief gets a little extra. However, once allotted land, you cannot under any circumstances get additional allotment or a fresh allotment. We all got our quota as lieutenants generals. Thirty acres. You cannot claim any more…nor can you surrender the allotted land and get fresh authorization. No chief has got any such allocation.”
This makes a logical case against land allocation for a rank and then additional allocation for the office. Going by the logic being presented in the case of Gen. Sharif, all general officers should get land allotted for the rank as well as the office they held. That, obviously, is not the case.
But let’s consider where it all began: like much else, with the British Raj.
Two factors contributed to it: creating a class supportive of the Raj, and canal-digging that resulted in colonies and verdant swaths of land which, earlier, lay fallow and, mostly, barren. The British needed more and more soldiers and officers for the British Indian Army and gifting land to people who served the Raj loyally was a good incentive. This also included families that were politically influential and could ensure political stability for the Raj.
With canals came more agricultural land to gift, and the policy became established practice. It also helped improve the socioeconomic status of the soldiers and made military service under the Raj a financially and socially viable option.
Unfortunately, the practice of land-gifts didn’t stop with the British leaving these shores. What’s worse is that the undemocratic arbitrariness that attended such gifts also continued. According to Dr. Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political scientist who has written extensively on civil-military relations and the Pakistan Army: “Some of Pakistan’s national dailies carried a news item … that the Punjab Board of Revenue informed the Lahore High Court that 62 senior and 56 junior Army officers were allotted agricultural lands in Cholistan and other district[s] of the Punjab under various schemes in 1981, 1982, 1994, 1999 and 2000. These allotments were made under instructions of the Army Headquarters and the details of these allotments could be made public only by the Army Headquarters.”
Rizvi goes on to say that “No detailed data is available on such allotments since the establishment of Pakistan because the military authorities are not willing to release the names of the beneficiaries of this policy and the civilian governments (when in power) do not want to alienate the military by making detailed data available to public. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Punjab Board of Revenue did not provide the list of officers who were allotted agricultural land in Cholistan and other districts of the Punjab in the specified years.”
One of the areas, post-1947, for settling ex-service personnel was Thal. Later, other schemes were developed near the barrages in Sindh and Punjab. Land was also allocated in Attock, Jhelum, Kohat, Rawalpindi and Hazara. Most of this land was developed with the help of the Army and included smaller tracts. Lands were also given for gallantry, though increasingly the Army has resorted to the practice of cash rewards.
In some ways, resettling and rehabilitating soldiers and mid-ranking officers is not a bad policy. Unlike government service in the civilian sectors, the Army doesn’t have 60 years age as superannuation. Most officers and soldiers retire or go on discharge while they are relatively young, mostly in early- to mid- to late-forties. But the policy needs to be rationalized to ensure that land allocations for such schemes consider the sensitivities and economic wellbeing of the local people and are not recklessly extravagant.
Also, the practice increasingly leans heavily in favor of senior ranks, especially general officers. This has not only served to make the hierarchy top-heavy, but also the size of tracts allocated go far beyond the requirements of appreciating meritorious service and rehabilitation. A case can also be made that such economic rehabilitation policies should be more need-based than rank-focused. For now, it’s more about the latter than the former.
A society must honor its brave men. Equally, it must have legal-normative and transparent standards for how that is done. That is a function of constructive social and political debates in parliament and outside it.
Most importantly, as Rizvi writes: “Land allotments to military personnel are not viewed in Pakistani society as an isolated development. These represent a broader phenomenon of the military gradually overwhelming most sectors of state and society.”
That feeling must go and for that the policy needs to be revisited and rationalized.
Postscript: for further reading, see, Imran Ali, The Punjab Under Imperialism, 1885-1947 (Princeton University Press, 1988); Major-General Fazal Muqeem (retd.), The Story of the Pakistan Army (Oxford University Press, 1963); Hasan Askari Rizvi, Military, State and Society in Pakistan (St Martin’s Press, New York, 2000).
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider