Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajik Capital Puts its Houses in Order

A new effort to enforce planning regulations seems designed to make Dushanbe a better place to live, but will the poor suffer more than the rich?
By Valentina Kasymbekova

A pioneering initiative to stop people grabbing land and building unauthorised houses in Tajikistan’s capital without permission looks like a laudable attempt at making planning regulations work. But Dushanbe’s less well-off residents fear there will be different treatment for rich and poor.


A special commission set up by city mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev has been conducting checks on property all across the city, with powers to confiscate land and if necessary take the claimed owners to court.


Kicking off his campaign on August 9, Ubaidulloev – regarded as a powerful figure in Tajik politics – told city officials and journalists that precious land was being “squandered”.


“Five thousand plots of land covering a total area of 53 hectares have been illegally sold and registered for construction,” said the mayor. “Dushanbe is a small city and we don't have much land – less than 13,000 hectares - and we cannot treat this process so carelessly.”


The mountainous republic is generally short of useable land, and Dushanbe is particularly lacking in space as it is hemmed in by farmland and hilly terrain, and while official statistics say 600,000 people live there, the true population is through to be closer to one million.


The expansion in the capital’s population was caused by migration during the 1992-97 civil war, as people sought refuge from the instability and economic collapse in the countryside. The government’s support base was rooted in the southeastern Kulyab region, and many people there took the opportunity to improve their prospects in the capital.


Failure to impose the normal housing and planning regulations created a free-for-all where residents added extensions to existing homes or put up new ones with little fear of punishment. Former villagers took over any urban land they saw as unused, including playgrounds and shared green areas, to pursue a rural lifestyle, growing crops, putting up buildings and extensions, and setting up open-air clay ovens.


This is the first time the Dushanbe authorities have acted to curb the unauthorised construction. The campaign forms part of a nationwide land audit the Tajik government ordered last year, in part so as to increase land tax revenues.


All land in Tajikistan is still state-owned and can only be held on a long lease.


The reason the government has decided to act may be that eight years after a peace deal brought the civil war to a close, the country has achieved stability and a modest amount of economic growth and the authorities are in a better position to make the rules stick.


“The authorities have grown stronger and they’ve got around to doing what they should have done earlier - take on people who break the law and punish them,” said political analyst Rashid Abdullo. “In the civil war years and during the post-conflict reconstruction phase, they didn’t have the capacity to attend to these matters, but the time has now come for it.”


Dushanbe’s land use commission is the first real action anyone has taken to enforce the rules.


Alisher Malleev, who is heading up the commission, told IWPR that over 1,000 cases of unauthorised land use were recorded in January to August. The first step is to fine the offenders between 120 and 240 US dollars and require them to remove the illicit structure. But often the commission has to go to court to enforce its ruling.


“Unfortunately, as we impose order, we have to resort to the law-enforcement agencies, and currently there are 193 cases in the Dushanbe courts. So far we have been only been able to eliminate 24 per cent of the violations we detect,” said Mallaev.


The people Mallaev has in his sights clearly resent his attempt to tell them what to do. Many are poor and have invested a great deal in their illegal construction projects, without reckoning anyone would come after them.


A man who gave his first name as Isroil told IWPR how after arriving in Dushanbe from a remote village eight years ago, he bought a two-room apartment on the city outskirts. As his children grew up and started their own families, the flat became crowded, and he built on a large room made of cement blocks, attached to the exterior wall of the building.


Two weeks ago, city officials turned up and told him the extension had to go, and he had no option but to comply. The 12 members of his family now have two rooms instead of three.


“I’m very unhappy that I expended a lot of effort and money, and it all turned out to be in vain,” Isroil told IWPR. “Why didn’t anyone tell me you can’t build extensions? I would have saved the money and bought a bigger apartment. But now I have no money and no extension.”


But while poor people who are ignorant of the law are relatively easy targets, it may be harder for the commission to pursue the wealthy businessmen and officials who buy up – and sometimes seize illegally - prime sites to throw up huge mansions without planning permission.


As Mayor Ubaidulloev noted, "A trend has appeared in the capital where people buy old buildings for the land they stand on, and then build mansions on them.”


Even where the land is purchased legally, the old house may be worth 5,000 dollars and the new ones a million dollars. Where government officials are involved, the unanswered question is where they got the money when official salaries may be as low as 40 dollars a month.


“My neighbour bought an old house for just 2,000 dollars right in the centre of town, and built a huge three-storey mansion in its place,” said a Dushanbe resident Mavluda Inoyatova. “I know that he didn’t get permission, but the authorities don’t have a problem with him as he works in law-enforcement.”


In such cases, many residents feel that the new campaign to enforce the planning rules will favour the rich and punish the poor.


Inoyatova has been involved in a four-year legal battle to regain a piece of land which she claims this neighbour grabbed from her.


“I can’t drive into the yard of my own home because my neighbours have occupied the plot,” she said. “Why do the incomers behave so brazenly, while not even the city authorities can help us, the native city residents, to stand up for our rights?”


Zarina, another Dushanbe resident, complains that her rich neighbour has not been hit by the new rules as she has, “Why is my small tandyr [outdoor oven] beside my balcony destroyed, but my neighbour’s enormous building which looks like a cliff-face not being demolished by officials? Does this mean rich people can do anything but poor people can’t?”


On the other side of the wealth divide, a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, could not see why he should comply with the new system.


“Why should I destroy my huge house that I’ve invested millions in? I bought the old building in the city centre legally, and I also paid enormous amounts of money to the district administration to be given permission to build on the land,” he said.


An employee of the national committee which oversees land use gave a jaundiced view of what he sees as the true motives for what looks like a campaign to ensure fair play.


“Our committee has recently had a lot of planning permission applications. In Dushanbe alone, there have been about 4,000 applications this year,” he said. “People are evidently growing more prosperous, and the authorities have realised this is a good opportunity to take money off them. I’m pretty sure that massive bribes change hands in exchange for documents giving you the right to use land.”


Although the city commission is supposed to take down unauthorised structures, owners with sufficient means may find the authorities more flexible.


As mayor Ubaidulloev noted, “The city authorities do not aim to demolish illegally built houses, but to reach a friendly agreement with offenders.”


Valentina Kasymbekova is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe.


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