South Asia

Legal quagmire behind Pakistan floods

Destroyed records on the lawn of Nowshera's Tehsil office, or office of land administration
Image caption Important legal records have been left to rot outdoors in Nowshera

The massive flooding of Pakistan in 2010 destroyed more than 1.5 million homes and cost $10bn in direct and indirect losses. But as the BBC's M Ilyas Khan discovers in the town of Nowshera, the floods also had a devastating impact in less obvious ways.

In 1970, two brothers cheated their only sister out of her share of the family's ancestral land near the town of Nowshera in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

It was the sort of thing that happens with a depressing regularity to many women in rural parts of Pakistan.

In 2002, the daughter of the cheated woman - who by that time was dead - successfully filed a court appeal for redistribution of the property.

That has led to multiple complications for Saeed Iqbal, whose father bought a portion of the land sold by one of the brothers back in 1977.

The law required him to provide paperwork so that his status as buyer of the land could be proved.

Mr Iqbal found himself metaphorically in deep water because to his misfortune the files concerned were among thousands of revenue and judicial records that were destroyed when Nowshera was submerged in last year's floods.

'Lost evidence'

"Legally, this puts Mr Iqbal at a disadvantage," says Mohammad Haroon, a lawyer and former president of the Nowshera district bar association.

"Copies of judicial documents, even if officially certified, are often challenged by litigants, and the only way to authenticate them is to produce the original record, which is lost," he says.

Image caption Large parts of Nowshera's court complex are under water

Nowshera was the first, and the hardest-hit, casualty of last year's floods - the worst for 80 years in Pakistan.

The River Kabul, which cuts through the middle of the town, overflowed its banks on both sides on the evening of 29 July 2010, inundating the entire town.

Nearly a dozen people were killed, and hundreds of homes wiped out completely.

The entire population of the town - some 100,000 people - had to relocate to relief camps or move in with friends and relatives in nearby villages.

The district administration, the police and the local judiciary took between four to six months to get back into their stride, and hiccups still persist.

The rains this year are not as relentless, but there is a constant trickle as we step into the offices of the district land administration, called Tehsil.

We are looking for Mr Iqbal's "lost evidence".

Image caption Locals are desperate to stop "land grabbers" stealing their inheritance

What we find is heaps of muddied bundles of decomposed paper and cloth piled high in two dingy rooms, both full of cobwebs and, warns one official, scorpions and snakes.

Some bundles are scattered in the lawns and corridors of the premises, all dried into cakes of paper pulp mixed with mud.

These were once files of land sketches and genealogical trees of the landowners of about 160 villages of Nowshera district, the oldest of them dating from 1870.

They included original documents of all land development, inheritance as well as records of court judgements in land disputes.

'Futile battle'

With the loss of these files, the entire history of the area has become suspect.

Across the river, at the drenched district courts, crowds of litigants hang around in the corridors, waiting to be called in by the bailiffs for their hearings.

Mr Haroon says that literally hundreds of them are waging a futile battle.

"Their cases are headed nowhere because the documents they have in their possession cannot be authenticated," he says.

The district revenue officer, Subhan Uddin, downplays the magnitude of the loss.

"We have been able to save 95% of our records, and there is nothing to suggest that any damage has been done to the interests of the public," he says.

But from what we have seen, that is clearly not the case.

Ahmad Jan, a poor and aging government employee, says God is the only hope he has left.

His father bought some land in the 1940s, and fought a challenge to the sale deed in a court which decided in his favour in 1948.

Image caption Ahmad Jan has put his trust in God

Mr Jan is now battling a local "land grabber" who has forcefully occupied a piece of that land.

Although Mr Jan possesses a certified copy of the 1948 court order, the original case file was destroyed in last year's floods.

Now there is no way a court can establish the physical details of his property. This has created an advantage for his opponent, experts say.

They say that as time goes by, countless cases are likely to come to light in which unscrupulous elements will deprive legal title-holders of their land.

And there is no silver lining.

Mr Haroon says the only permanent solution to this problem is a fresh exercise in land settlement.

This would require a land survey of the entire district to draw up sketches of land holdings and genealogical trees of the current owners.

Many doubt there is the administrative will, the funds and the level of competence that such an exercise would require.

The British rulers of India conducted the first land settlement in 1870, and updated the records in the 1890s and again in the 1920s. The idea was to update the records every 20 to 25 years.

But there has not been a single land settlement exercise since 1947, when Pakistan won freedom.

Few expect there will be one in the near future.

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