Tom Hussain, Foreign Correspondent of The National
ISLAMABAD // Malik Riaz Hussain, a billionaire Pakistani developer, has responded to the misery of millions of his flood-stricken compatriots by pledging to spend 75 per cent of his fortune on rebuilding their lives.
The extraordinary offer was made in a television interview in which he told how he had sent a letter before the floods to 100 of Pakistan’s most wealthy and powerful people asking them to pool money into a fund to repair homes, provide vocational training and extend microfinance loans to impoverished Pakistanis.
Mr Hussain is the chairman of Bahria Town, a US$6 billion (Dh22bn) urban development enterprise that has built gated communities for a million people in the central cities of Lahore and Rawalpindi.
Bahria Town has already responded to the current floods by vastly expanding a corporate social responsibility programme called dastarkhwan, or dining spread, to provide two meals a day to more than 150,000 flood refugees in inundated areas and free medical care at mobile hospitals.
Its housing projects, unrivalled in Pakistan as models of highly desirable but affordable suburban living, have revolutionised Pakistan’s real-estate sector over the last decade by targeting the previously untapped middle class, rather than the rich.
The huge popularity of the Bahria Town brand has made Mr Hussain, at the age of 62, one of a handful of Pakistanis believed to be billionaires in US dollar terms, although this cannot be verified as he has never released his tax records.
A man of unremarkable origins, Mr Hussain espouses traditional family values, and has expressed them in the modern family-friendly suburbs he has built.
Reproductions of famous landmarks, such as London’s Trafalgar Square, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, point to his aspirations for Pakistan, while beautiful mosques and Quranic calligraphy suggest that modernity is in harmony with Muslim beliefs.
Drawing on that experience, and with a fleet of 2,500 earth-moving machines, Mr Hussain sees the reconstruction of the almost one million homes destroyed or damaged in the floods as a matter of numbers.
Nearly all the destroyed homes have been simple two-room mud-brick constructs belonging to the poor that, by his reckoning, would cost 300,000 rupees each to rebuild, with enough left over to buy a few head of livestock.
“That’s all it will take to give them back their lives,” he said.
Mr Hussain quickly calculates aloud the maths and remarks that the requisite $3.5bn could easily be raised if Pakistan’s wealthy elite, named in his list of letter recipients, were to match his pledge of donating 75 per cent of his wealth with half of their personal fortunes.
However, his letter was not written as a desperate appeal to their better nature.
Rather, it issues a stern warning that the floods could exacerbate social tensions between Pakistan’s moneyed elite, a tiny percentage of the country’s 170 million people, and the impoverished half of the population that the United Nations said did not know where their next meal was coming from.
In the letter, Mr Hussain said the ostentatious lifestyles of Pakistan’s wealthy and their indifference to the plight of the poor were disturbingly reminiscent of social conditions before the French and Iranian revolutions, which occurred nearly 200 years apart.
“It is time that we realise our duty towards Pakistan. If we are unable to see the imminent consequences of our continued ignorance, I am scared that not only our families, but also our businesses, will fuel a bloody revolution,” Mr Hussain wrote.
“This is a clear warning to land barons, politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists to shed their sloth and wake up before all is lost, and there is no place to hide.”
Mr Hussain is not a conspiracy theorist; his prediction is based on his experience of housing orphan students from the Jamia Hafsa seminary in Islamabad, the setting in July 2007 for a bloody stand-off between security forces and militant clerics that ended in the deaths of more than 100 people.
The deaths of the students, many of them children from the Swat valley, caused nationwide outrage, decisively turned public opinion against Gen Pervez Musharraf, then the president, and ignited a Taliban insurgency that, until the success of military counteroffensives last year, threatened to overwhelm the government.
Mr Hussain says he has been deeply disappointed that his letter has failed to evince a single response to date, and is unhappy that his offer to place the Bahria Town fleet of earth-moving machinery at the government’s disposal has been ignored. “I have stepped in to help my people, but I cannot do this alone,” he said
But he is not a man accustomed to taking no for an answer, and has vowed to lobby those who have been sent the letter.
“At this time, what I need is support from fellow Pakistanis who, like me, have earned a fortune from the motherland and are indebted to it,” he said.
“Trust me, it’s time to pay back to our country.”