Criminals are rife in the katcha (unpaved) areas of upper Sindh and southern Punjab, transforming them into a virtual no-man’s land where even law-enforcers fear to tread. According to authorities, land-grabbers affiliated with the gangs have occupied thousands of acres of land along the river, cultivating wheat, vegetables, and fruit for sale as well as their own consumption—without paying any taxes to the government. The criminals in the katcha areas between the Guddu and Kotri barrages are further facilitated by land-grabbing from influential people, including politicians, bureaucrats, sardars and waderas, who are almost untouchable in Pakistani society.
The core issue with the katcha areas is that of a lack of the state’s writ. Criminal gangs freely occupy the lands, using them as a refuge after committing crimes in major cities, seemingly without any fear of legal repercussions. Their presence has hampered development, with the chief engineer of the Sukkur Barrage lamenting to media his department cannot risk sending its men or vehicles to katcha areas without a police force. Unfortunately, many operations aimed at ousting criminal gangs from the katcha areas have failed, with the latest attempt already spanning several months with no real progress to show for it.
Last year, while prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif directed police in Lahore to undertake the latest operation in south Punjab, to be conducted in four phases. It called for “clearing” the area of the criminals and then proceeding toward “normalization” with permanent check-posts, police stations, and bridges on the rivers to facilitate regular police patrolling. Despite over a year since its launch, it has yielded little, with katcha gangs continuing to abduct and hold hostage citizens with seeming impunity. Following the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the gangs—per local residents—are equipped with the latest weapons, even rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns. The truth of the matter is that 75 years since its inception, all parts of Pakistan continue to have lawless areas, eradicating which is essential if the country has any hope of enforcing its sovereignty.