Created Homelessness

In the last 50 years no social housing has been developed in Pakistan except for small schemes by community organizations and NGOs which are not even a drop in the ocean. Grand plans made by the People’s Party and the PML-N governments during their tenures did not materialize.

So one is forced to ask as to how the poor manage to house themselves?

This process in Karachi has been well-documented. Comparatively cheap land is available on the city’s fringe. Living there is unaffordable because of costs involved in traveling to work, absence of education and health facilities, and work for women. As a result the old katchi abadis, which are within or nearer to places of work have densified and so have the houses along the nala. Densification is achieved by building upwards, increasing the number of families in one house, or simply moving part of the family onto the street. The more ecologically dangerous places have the cheapest land and so most of the poorest families live in areas subject to flooding or landslides.

There was a time when katchi abadi residents were confident that their settlements would be regularized. However, for the past 15-20 years the regularization process has been abandoned and under the 2014 Sindh Special Development Board Act, katchi abadis can be handed over to developers for demolition and multi-story reconstruction on “modern” lines. Infrastructure projects have also displaced over 200,000 people in the last decade as a result most displaced families are heavily in debt and their children out of school. This has led to extreme insecurity in all low-income settlements in Karachi which is a major impediment to upward mobility.

As a result of the 2020 floods the government has decided to bulldoze about 12,000 homes along three nalas(demolition along other nalas will follow) who they claim are disrupting the flow of water. In addition, 2948 commercial units are also to be removed.

There are a number of issues that arise out of this situation. The houses being demolished almost always contain more than one family but compensation is being paid per house. Then the notice given for demolition is too short. These houses have been built over time and have been financed primarily by women through BC committees, savings from household expenses, and sale of dowry items such as jewelry. Once demolished the owners have no place to store usable items from their rubble or space to cook so many families stay hungry. Given COVID and inflation, and a change of culture, moving in with friends and relatives is no longer an option. Meanwhile, rents have increased due to inflation and a six-month advance is demanded by landlords. The money offered by the government is not even a small fraction of what is required even for renting purposes.

These low income settlements have an economy that serves the local population and generates jobs. By the removal of commercial activity, this economy and the population it serves are adversely affected.

Surveys of the affected population show that most of them have either lost their jobs or their businesses have suffered due to COVID. In most cases one finds one family of six to eight persons living in one room and often one toilet seat for 20 persons. These conditions are enough to shame any Pakistani with a minimum of conscience. With the construction of ML1 (the rail link between Karachi and Islamabad), evictions will increase manifold and will take place all over Pakistan.

One is forced to ask if infrastructure projects have to create homelessness, loss of jobs, debt, and out-of-school children? The construction of the Malir Expressway is demolishing 24 old goths including archeological sites, water reservoirs, and green cover. In the opinion of some experts, there could have been an alignment whereby these goths remained unaffected.

It is imperative that in the future, infrastructure projects should aim at minimizing evictions and that either lump sum compensation or a housing alternative is offered to the affected population.This should be a part of the government’s current housing programme. For instance, the families whose homes were demolished on the KCR’s right of way are both poor and homeless. Their rehabilitation and of others affected by infrastructure projects, at a modest estimate, would be for well over 1 million households in Pakistan. Imran Khan does not have to look for the poor. They are staring him in his face and you cannot punish people for the government’s own failures.

The present demolitions are a watershed in Pakistan’s history. They have been supported by Supreme Court judgments. There has been no effective civil society movement opposing them. They are not a hot subject for the media, human rights organizations, or political parties. Meanwhile illegal construction by the elites of this country is routinely regularized. It seems that we are happy being an apartheid state.

Published in the Daily Dawn on the 16th of March 2021

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