Between the People and the Polis

Meera Bapat, an architect planner in Pune, she and I made some studies, she on Pune and me on Karachi for the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. We went back to the settlements that we knew 30 years ago, and what did we find? We found that the settlements’ infrastructure had improved, their social indicators had improved, but they had become overcrowded. And the quality of life, in spite of the improvement in infrastructure and social indicators, had declined considerably. So, apart from that, a very important aspect was the vulnerability of the renters in these settlements because the buildings are owned by musclemen and the renter can be thrown out whenever they like, and the rent can be increased whenever they want. So this also has been documented in fairly great detail.

Now what has the government’s response been? I won’t go into the statistics of the gap between supply and demand, but what has the government’s response been? After the 1990s, the government’s response has been ‘go and access the market’. That has been the response, both in India and in Pakistan, except for small projects that really don’t make much of a difference. To access the market, the government has liberalised finance. But this has benefited the developers more than anyone else because they can access finance for their clients. But if individually one wants to access a loan, the requirements are such that the poor cannot access it. You need a formal job, you need an asset that you can mortgage, etc. In spite and in addition to that, these additions to the loan capital can serve only 16 percent of the demand. So to make affordable the product, the units are becoming smaller and smaller, both in the formal and in the informal sector. And they are becoming so small – 24 square metres, 30 square metres – that a family cannot live in them. Yet, you have 10-15 people living in these homes.

Now, I was in Delhi in 2007 and some of my friends said that there is a lot of development, informal development, taking place in Jamuna Path, so I decided to go there and take a look. My taxi driver was a sardarji, I told him “Jamuna Path chale”.

He said, “Waha kya karenge aap?” (What will you do there?)

Maine kaha, “Mujhe plot kharidna hai.” So he was very excited he said he knew exactly the place where I could get a plot. And he asked me how big a plot. I said, “About 60 to 100 metres.”

He said, “Aap usme kaise rahenge?” (How will you stay there?)

Maine kaha, “Nahi, mere driver ke liye hai.

So he was very excited, and he took me there. And so, we went, it was all in Hindi, the billboards, so I couldn’t read it; I don’t read the Devanagari script. But underneath it was written ‘Property Advisor’, so we spoke to him. He showed me the map, he showed me which was the best plot, he showed me, told me I couldn’t take any corner plots because they had already been given to those who had helped him in setting up this colony. Finally, we agreed on a price, and I said to him, “Is this sort of approved by the government scheme?”

He said, “No, it is not approved by a government scheme.”

I said, “Why should I buy a plot there?”

He said, “Hojayega, approve hojayega na.” (Approval will come)

I said, “I don’t believe it. I construct a house here, I have no proof of ownership?”

He said, “You have. I’m giving you the proof of ownership. I’m giving you a paper.”
This paper, he said, is acceptable for all transactions: renting, building, etc. So I said to him that I don’t believe this. This will cause me great problems. He said, “Tusi kyu rafte ho? Main hoon na.” (Why are you flustered. I am here to help you).

Now, this is exactly how development takes place on the fringe of Karachi as well. No difference. And in the case of what I saw in 2007, it was a very huge development, enormous in size. Now you have all these informal systems of ownership, transfer, etc. They exist. They are not recognised. What do we do about them? How do we deal with them? I leave that as an open question.

The second change that I would like to talk about is in the older settlements that were built between 1970 and 1980. They have changed. When I began working the settlements, older people always used to come as the community leaders and they used to talk in a flowery – they were illiterate – they used to talk in a flowery Urdu. They used to say janam, husoor, sahi, nyadman sharfhasidua etc etc. Today, when you go there, there are young men who can read and write and sometimes women who call you uncle and that too in English. So these schools have changed, these settlements have changed. They are no longer purely working class settlements. Truckloads of women go to work into the factories everyday which they didn’t before. There are beauty parlours, lots of them, marriage halls, community centres and schools that the people have set up themselves. Now these settlements, their needs are less about water, electricity and sewage. Their needs are that their aspirations should be fulfilled, that they should be integrated into the middle class of the city. So they want more schools, they want vocational training, they want health, and they want culture. This is, again, something that they are fighting to get, but are not conscious that they are fighting specifically for this.

The voting patterns of these old settlements have also changed. Whereas previously they voted for progressive parties who promised them regularisation of their settlements, they now vote for the more conservative parties and increasingly have middle-class values. Unlike before, they are reluctant to join movements against evictions and/or reform. The nature of their relationship with officaldom has changed from protest to negotiation. They also constitute the largest group of voters in Karachi and are listened to. Meanwhile, shopkeepers, mandi operators and transporters have become very powerful political agents. They have not yet exercised their power, but they are in a position to do so and I don’t think it would be too different in the rest of Southasia.

Then you have new concepts that are floating around among the more radical planners and academics; the concepts of new urbanism have been promoted. And future architects and planners are being trained in them. This has also been pushed by international financial institutions and Western academia. They are telling us to have higher densities, mixed land-uses and ‘inclusive cities’. However, the three most dense cities in the world are situated in Southasia – Dhaka with a density of 4440 persons per hectare, Mumbai, with 3090 and Karachi with 2800. These densities could not be achieved without the violation of existing density laws. For instance, Karachi’s by-laws permit a maximum of 1625 persons per hectare and Mumbai’s existing density could not have been achieved if its floor-to-area ratio of 1:1.33 would have been followed. The difference between the actual density and rules and regulations is because low-income settlements have extremely high densities. In Karachi, they go up to 6000 persons per hectare, similar to that of Dharavi, while elite settlements have densities of less than 200 persons per hectare. Also, housing units on 400-2000 square metres of land in Karachi are only 2 percent of the housing stock, but they occupy 26 percent of the residential land of the city. Similar figures have been quoted for the other Southasian mega-cities. This form of development not only continues to take place but has increased due to the changes in the urban development paradigm. But the question is, is it sustainable?

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