Tenants clamour for rights in quake-affected Allai

Atiq Khan, 55, is having what could be his last cup of tea for a very long time with his friends at the bazaar in Bana, headquarters of the remote, mountainous Allai area in Batagram District, over 250km from Islamabad.

Atiq's sons, both in their 20s, have already left the area with their families and now Atiq too is planning to follow them.

"My sons have small daughters. There are no schools for them in Allai beyond primary level. There are few means to earn a livelihood; our houses are no longer standing after the October 2005 earthquake - but most of all there is just no future here for people like us who are tenants," Atiq said.

Located in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), most of Allai's 150,000 inhabitants are tenants - tilling plots of land along steep mountainsides in exchange for permission from landlords to build a shelter on the land and to get a share of the food, often a small percentage of the produce grown on the land.

Ongoing disputes

The tensions between landlords and tenants quickly surfaced in many regions in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck NWFP and Pakistani-administered Kashmir nearly two years ago - killing at least 73,000 people and leaving some 3.5 million people homeless.

The first compensation amount of US$415 per tenant family, announced at the initial rehabilitation stages by the Pakistan government, was demanded by both - with tenants maintaining they had built the houses that collapsed and landlords saying they owned the land they stood on.


Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
Post-quake rebuilding in Allai's steep mountains has proved arduous - and a dispute between tenants and landlords has added to the complications

"The disputes are still continuing in many areas such as Shinkiari, Batal, the Siran Valley and elsewhere," explained Syed Aftab Ahmed of the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), a government-supported organisation active in post-quake rebuilding across the NWFP.

In the wake of the disaster, many tenants had hoped the entry of dozens of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), international agencies and welfare groups into the rugged mountains of Allai - long considered inaccessible to outsiders because of their location and reputation for lawlessness - would play a role in breaking the hold of powerful landowners.

"We had thought we would be freed, that we would be given some land and allowed to live as citizens, not as subjects," said Amin-ur-Rehman, a student from Allai currently studying in the nearby city of Abbotabad.

Disputes over compensation

The hopes of local people were also initially raised when the first compensation amount of $415 was handed over to tenants who had lost homes. Those hopes were soon dashed when subsequent, larger installments of the government’s compensation scheme were given to the landlords.

Justifying the decision, NWFP Information Minister Asif Iqbal Daudzai, said: "The formula rectified problems between tenants and farmers." He also said the interests of tenants "would be protected".


Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
More than 3.5 million people were left homeless by the October 2005 disaster

In Allai, the entire matter is exacerbated by the fact that the largest landowners in the area, the former princes who ruled the independent State of Allai until 1949, when it acceded to Pakistan, are desperate to retain their hold over the region and its people. They had feared this grip could be threatened by allocations made directly to tenants after the October 2005 quake.

"In a number of cases, the tenants just left after getting the first Rs 25,000 ($415) as compensation for a house they did not own," Nawaz Khan Allai, one of the largest landlords of the region, whose family had ruled the state for decades, told IRIN, maintaining that tenants in the area were given "dignity" and "treated as family".

But most tenants disagree. Levels of dissatisfaction are high in the area, with thousands still living in temporary shelters, in part due to problems in constructing houses as per the design approved by the Pakistani authorities in the isolated hamlets of Allai.

Tenants said they were in most acute need of housing, since the affluent landlords had already rebuilt their own homes months ago. They alleged that, as such, the Khans had "no interest in helping the tenants".

Court ruling

"The High Court in Peshawar has now ruled that the compensation amount can be granted to tenants if they are able to produce a Land Ownership Certificate (LOC) or an NoC (No Objection Certificate) from the landlord who owns the land. This formula means the issue of who owns the land is at least clear," explained the SRSP's Aftab Ahmed.

Following attacks on the offices of several relief organisations, including the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the UN Children’s Fund, work has quite obviously slowed and many groups have withdrawn staff.

The problems of Allai highlight some of the complex social and economic issues which prevail in quake-hit areas as the second anniversary of the October 2005 quake draws closer.

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