By: Ayesha Siddiqa
This is not the story of Lt-General (retd) Muzaffar Usmani of the 1999 martial law fame, but that of an ordinary travel agent from Bahawalpur, Waqar Usmani, who eventually came to be known as ‘general’ Usmani due to his close ties with former General Pervez Musharraf.
Waqar Usmani’s claim to fame was his friendship with Musharraf, when the latter was posted as a brigadier in Bahawalpur. Usmani was a generous provider and friend and this endeared him to the brigadier. To Musharraf’s credit, he remembered these favours as he rose through the ranks to become the army chief and then the president of the country (Pervez Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari seem to have a common trait of fondness for people who helped them during less fortunate times). When Usmani’s daughter got married, the Bahawalpur corps commander was asked to attend since the president could not go himself.
Musharraf tried to take care of his friend by letting him use the resources of the army and the state. Once, during Musharraf’s visit to Bahawalpur, Usmani was flown on state expense from Karachi. Moreover, he always had a colonel on his heels. The man was also given a lease for a few hundred acres of state land in Cholistan. Some might argue that this wasn’t a special favour because this was, and remains, illegally-occupied land which the army leased out to private parties in the name of the welfare of soldiers. The lessees, however, do not have any documentation because the army itself does not have any paperwork to prove its legal ownership. What to talk of the fortress stadium or other controversial land uses, which were recently debated in parliament, the Public Accounts Committee will find more explosive material in Cholistan, an area where the army has really spread itself.
Our ‘General’ Usmani was lucky for having known the other general, Pervez Musharraf, else he wouldn’t have benefitted from this land-lease system. Ordinary folks of the area don’t know that despite the land being in Bahawalpur, it’s the Pano Aqil corps that controls the leasing system. Earlier, the Lahore corps did this task. As per official records, the army is in unlawful occupation of 99,865 acres of land in Cholistan. This is over and above the lands the service acquired under the 1912 Land Act. This includes over 5,000 acres of land which belongs to the forest department.
The illegally occupied land is then leased out to private parties which comprises mainly of big landowners or businessmen in the area, or from outside. For instance, some army officers (retired and serving), who were tactically appointed as managing directors of the Cholistan Development Authority during the previous decade, have acquired such land and have become significant stakeholders. One must not forget that rules do not allow the sanction of Cholistan land to anyone other than the local Cholistanis. Not to mention the millions of landless peasants who don’t get land.
Even if the ordinary Cholistanis or the poor folk get land, they may not be as lucky as Musharraf’s friend and the other influential lessees who get access to free flow of water. In the area around Liaquatpur, the army ensures its lessees uninterrupted supply of water which is illegally diverted from the share of canal water allocated for Sadiqabad and Rahimyar Khan. The army and lessees don’t even pay any water rates or taxes on this land. The service has also sublet 3,000 acres legally leased to it for operational purposes. There appears to be a ‘crawling pattern’ of the army’s occupation of state land. Every year, units push the exercise area deep into Cholistan, which releases hundreds of acres of land from the army’s operational use that was part of the exercise area the previous year. A lot of this area is then leased out.
While the land occupation story continues, it seems that Waqar Usmani has disappeared from the scene after his friend, who transformed him from a travel agent to a landowner, left the country. Usmani and many other beneficiaries await his return to devour more.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 30th, 2011.