Why make people homeless?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IT IS ironical that it required a massive show of strength in the form of a large demonstration in Karachi on June 2 to get the city government to stop the demolition of katchi abadis it had been carrying on in a very determined way.

The protest rally organised by the Pakhtoon Action Committee two weeks ago blocked the main arteries of Karachi and caused such a traffic jam that the administration was forced to rethink its policies — at least for the present.

Those who protested had many grievances. Their main grouse was against the forced eviction of the dwellers of the katchi abadis and the demolition of their homes which the city government has undertaken as a part of its so-called gentrification programme. In the name of renewal and rebuilding of Karachi under a new master plan still on the anvil, the city fathers have bulldozed 3,490 housing units since January 2006. Apart from these, nearly 14,000 housing units and shops have been demolished since 2002 to make room for the Lyari Expressway project. The transporters joined the demonstration to add to the size of the procession.

Daily reports by the press at times fail to create an impact. But seen collectively, the human suffering is colossal. It is estimated that over 23,000 people have been made homeless in the process and their monetary loss is calculated to be to the tune of Rs 1.047 billion which they had invested in the construction of their homes. If people are upset it is understandable. Describing the katchi abadis as eyesores and the havens of criminals and the land grabbers, the city administration has moved to strike them down . It has justified its action by terming the abadis as encroachments that are illegal.

There are two aspects of this issue that have been totally disregarded. First, the modality of the eviction has not been as humane and compassionate as it should have been. Secondly, there is the issue of pinning responsibility for encroachment when it takes place and if it is morally and legally correct to penalise the so-called encroachers when others have committed a graver crime.

As has been reported widely, the evictions have been carried out brutally with the use of force, without any prior notice and no compensation or alternative land being given to the affected people. None of the internationally recognised guidelines for development-related evictions were observed. It should be stressed that all the people who are thrown out are the poorest of the poor. It is wrong to declare them wrongdoers who have breached the law and illegally seized government land.

One has to understand the process of encroachment to realise how wronged the inhabitants of katchi abadis are. In Karachi alone six million people live in 539 katchi abadis. They are the people whose fundamental right to adequate housing and shelter has not been recognised. They are forced to fend for themselves.

Since the government does not feel it is its duty to provide low cost housing for them — Karachi needs 25,000 housing units a year — they are forced to turn to the land grabbers. The land grabbers do for the poor what the government should have been doing. After all, isn’t it the state’s duty to provide the poor land at affordable prices, with possession given without delay? At present, land for low cost housing is not that low in cost and formal documentation involves weeks of legal processes and repeated visits to various offices.

The land grabber is in league with the police and the functionaries of the local government. Together they ensure that the so-called encroachers are allowed to settle on the land the land mafia has seized illegally and charged the poor to erect their homes on. The poor build a shelter for themselves incrementally as they gradually invest in adding concrete structure, getting electricity, gas and water connections.

All this takes quite a few years. When they are evicted, as is happening now, their earnings of a lifetime are lost. Meanwhile, the mafia, the police and the revenue department officials who had become rich by selling land they had grabbed free of cost cannot be traced and get away with their loot.

The key question is who is responsible for the problem of encroachments? The fact is that the appetite for land seems to be insatiable. It is increasingly being controlled by market forces. That is why we keep hearing of so many land scams. There is the common phenomenon of utility land being commercialised and land being unlawfully allotted. According to Arif Hasan, the chairman of the Urban Resource Centre and the OPP-RTI, 8,000 acres of amenity land has been converted into commercial plots in Karachi since the early nineties.

Tasneem Siddiqui, who retired recently as the director general of the Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority and has contributed in a big way towards housing for the poor, pins the blame on the revenue department which is notorious for its corruption. He cites the case of the Sindhi goths which have existed for centuries and naturally have no legal documentations. The revenue department failed to demarcate them and as a result it is now difficult to even determine the boundaries of the goths and where the encroachments begin. For the present, the evictions have mercifully stopped, but it is unlikely that the policy will be abandoned altogether. Those whose homes have been demolished have had to move to the periphery of the city, again on state land. Those who could not find new homes continued to squat in the open on the rubble of their homes. Of course, the land mafia must be having a field day in the process. But for many, this shifting will bring unemployment, uprooting from their social support structures, an end to their children’s education and psychological trauma from which they may never recover.

Since the law provides for the notification of many of these katchi abadis, the government should provide the lease to those who have not received it so far. The basic intention should be to cause the minimum of uprooting and suffering. There will be some abadis that might have to be razed to the ground. That should be done as a last resort and only after due notice has been given and alternative land provided. A resettlement policy will have to be formulated before anyone is evicted.

In most other cases, it should be possible for the city government to upgrade and improve the katchi abadis themselves so that they do not remain black spots in a city the administration is attempting to gentrify.

But that is only possible if our rulers approach the poor with empathy and attempt to understand their needs and how they strive to meet their needs. Policies which take the needs of the people into account will succeed.

It is also important that the greed, cupidity and avarice of the vested interests who act in league with the government functionaries are not allowed to play with the lives of the people. Since corruption is so rampant in the government, the land grabbers can get away with their evil ways.

It is time the administration stopped looking for its political gains at the expense of the poor. A general impression is that most of the people uprooted are not Mohajirs, hence they do not constitute the vote bank of the MQM that is in power in the local government and in the Sindh provincial coalition. Quite a chunk of the evictees are Pakhtoons who therefore rallied behind the ANP on June 2. This gives the entire problem an ethnic and political colour. One can ask if this is a form of gerrymandering?