20 Jul Jalalabad’s “Grab-Town” a Difficult Case of Illegal Settlement and Land Dispute
Posted at 10:36h in Blogs
In March this year, as we started our study on urban governance in Jalalabad, one of our first tasks was selecting an interesting site. We chose Qasimabad, and the findings from our research there shed light on many issues related to informal settlements in urban contexts.
There are more than 4,000 plots of land in Qasimabad, which is roughly 1.5 square kilometres. Since the fall of the Taliban, this once-empty area has changed significantly, with a lot of informal settlement and development. A plot there initially cost US$80-160 but now they go for more than $2000. You can see a picture of Qasimabad here.
Qasimabad is located in Behsud District, five kilometres north of Jalalabad city. This site was first selected as a potential satellite township as part of a master-plan developed during the 1970s, while Daoud Khan was prime minister. The site was marked as a reserve space for future urbanisation. If population pressure on Jalalabad city rose too much, this town would be developed to increase residential capacity and thus help city residents avoid problems caused by high population densities.
Unfortunately, due to three decades of war, the plan to urbanise and expand Jalalabad city as envisioned in the 1970s was never implemented. However, after the collapse of Taliban regime a large number of refugees returned from Pakistan and Iran, with many employment opportunities, investments and donor funds following the ISAF/NATO intervention. At this time, the price of land suddenly shot up. As a result, people who had the support of some influential local commanders quickly took over land in the vicinity of Jalalabad.
This phenomenon was common all over Afghanistan. In response, in June 2002 a decree was sent by the transitional administration to all provinces, declaring:
“The distribution of vacant and non-cultivated lands, which are government property, to people as construction plots for residential and other purposes should be strictly avoided” (Article 1).
Fear of government action initially kept the process slow, but people soon realised that government attention was not focused on the issue, and settlement activity became more rapid. People from other districts and provinces as well as from the local area started constructing houses without any legal consent but with the support of local commanders and tribal leaders. The Ministry of Justice gazetted another law on land affairs in 2008 in an attempt to get a handle on such issues, but it had little effect in Qasimabad.
Meanwhile, the local government made a plan for the distribution of land to disabled people, teachers, ulema and other government employees, without considering the issue of land grabbing and informal construction. It changed the name from Qasimabad to Hajji Qadeer Town and sold each plot for 38,500 Afs (approximately $800). Those who paid up received legal documents from Jalalabad municipality. Last year the municipality received 33 million Afs from Qasimabad and will probably make another 30 million (approximately $650,000) this year.
An acute problem soon arose with many plots having two claimants—one informal settler and another with the legal document. The local government has proven very interested in selling land and generating revenue, but the issue of legal ownership and informal occupation remains unsolved.
Today, the residents of Qasimabad city can be categorised into four main groups:
1. A group of people from Kunar Province who bought the land from a local commander
2. A group of people allied with a local Nangarhari commander
3. Settlers from the same Behsud District and nearby Daman Village
4. A limited number of legal owners
During data collection in Qasimabad, one respondent said, “Legal owners are like uninvited guests at a party, who don’t have the courage to eat.” Another said, “I paid the price three years ago but still I’m living in a rented house.”
People have demonstrated and met with officials from the governor down to try to solve their problems, but to no avail. The governor promised some petitioners that alternative plots would be provided to them, but these pledges have amounted to nothing—like words carved in ice and put under the sun.
Some legal owners started negotiations with settlers on their own and managed to take control of their land by giving them some money. However, only a few pursued this method successfully. Meanwhile, conflict among residents of Qasimabad for control of more space has caused the killing of several people and many injuries.
I think it will be very difficult for the local government to evict the settlers and give the plots to the legal owners. Currently, demonstrations have become a fashion in Afghanistan, and there are also international human rights groups and local power-holders to contend with. Knowing this, it seems impossible that the government could use force to take control of Qasimabad.
It would be best if the government negotiates with the people already residing in Qasimabad and officially allocates their plots to them for the fixed price of 38,500 Afs. At the same time, the government must find acceptable alternative sites for those people who have already paid for a piece of land.
In a township where more than 80 percent of residents are informal settlers, aka “land-grabbers,” I wonder if this town would be better known as Zoorabad – “Grab-Town.”