At 85, Sardar Bibi, bent double and stone deaf, has no idea that she may well be forced to leave her one-room abode that has been her home for the last 63 years to make way for the Karachi Circular Railway track.
“It will kill her!” her 50-year-old daughter, also a widow, told Dawn.com.
News of the revival of the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR), a public rail transport system, has been met with fears of being evicted from those living along the railway tracks in Kashmir Mujahid Colony. They say they are not encroachers since they have bought the land by people who said they owned the Pakistan Railways (PR).
This informal settlement developed on four acres of railway land near the Clifton Bridge and within the jurisdiction of Civil Lines Police Station, comprises a population of over 2,000, and is among the 26 clusters situated on the route of the to-be revived Karachi Circular Railway. The colony people fear they may soon be relocated.
The colony has yet to be regularised despite being a declared one much before 1985 and its residents should have been given legal title as per the Sindh Katchi Abadi Act (SKAA), say the area people.
Every time, there is talk of revival of the KCR and turning it into a modern commuter service, the communities coming in the way of the tracks, comprising no less than 40,000 people, develop renewed fears of being evicted. This ‘on again, off again’ plan for revitalisation of the KCR has been going on for years. The revival lurches from one decision to another.
But Ejaz Khilji of the Karachi Urban Transport Corporation is very clear that none of the residential colonies which he calls “squatters” coming in the way of the KCR, on PR land can be regularised as per the SKAA. “Any land required by PR for laying transportation or power transmission lines can be acquired at any point in time.”
Karachi, home to an estimated 18 million people does not have a mass transit system. In its absence, this 43.12 km rail transit system aims to ease the lives of 500,000 or so daily commuters.
According to news reports, the urban commuter railway line will be revived at a whopping cost of Rs128 billion, 93 per cent of which is being provided by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) as a soft loan with 0.2 per cent interest repayable in 40 years. The remaining 6.3 per cent, will be borne by the Government of Pakistan.
“If everything goes well, the loan agreement will be signed as early as June this year,” Khilji told Dawn.com.
Noor Mohammad, 75, a railway employee, is among the first oldest residents to have found shelter back in 1947. “This house belonged to a Hindu family and when they left, we just occupied it,” he said. “There were just a handful of hutments back then,” he recalled.
Walking about the narrow alleys, past the dry cleaners, the tailors, the pharmacy and the general store, you get a feeling of camaraderie. Everyone knows everyone. “I grew up here and I know how safe it is,” remarked Amna Khalid, 23, who walks to a nearby college every day.
“Even when all of Karachi is up in arms, our colony remains calm,” said Mohammad Siddiq. “So if we are evicted we will be scattered and these relationships built over decades will end,” he rued.
Sharifan Bibi, 70, insists the biggest asset is the “peace” that is found in the colony.
“Most people will tell you they have all the facilities like enough water, gas and electricity, but if you ask me, the biggest asset here is harmony. It’s a safe and secure neighbourhood; our children roam about without any fear,” said the septuagenarian.
Khilji also said over 250 acres had been acquired in Shah Lateef Town near the Juma Goth station, where residents of over 4,653 households, coming in the way of the KCR, will be relocated. An 80-square-yards plot and Rs50,000 minimum would be given to each household, besides providing other civic amenities in the new township, including schools, hospitals, parks, playgrounds etc.
“Our foremost concern is to add sustainability to this revival,” said Khilji, adding: “We have taken the communities on board, addressed their concerns and reservations.”
According to him, no other mega project in the past in which people’s lives were going to be affected had “so much interface” as was done in the case of KCR’s revival.
And yet people are not happy to be relocated.
“I don’t want the money or the plot; I want to live and die here,” said Muzammil Bibi. “In these times of soaring prices, if there is one thing I own is my home, and now even that is being taken from us,” she lamented.
But there are pragmatic people like Mohammad Tariq who say if they have to be forced out, “at least move us within the two kilometer radius so it is not too far from our places of work”. He points to an empty area across the colony. “It is vacant and belongs to the railways. So if the railways want us to give up this part to lay the track, then in return they can give us the other tract of land.” he said. He does not understand why they have to be “thrown out in the wilderness”.
Many in Kashmir Mujahid Colony are skeptical and will tell you it is a ploy by the PR to get its land back.
“Back in 1999, they had taken about 10 to 15 feet of our area by demolishing part of our homes, on the same plea,” said Tariq, who acts as the community’s spokesperson.
“If the KUTC would tell us the ‘right of way’ (distance from the track to the built up area) we can negotiate on that and not everyone has to be moved,” said Tariq. According to him, the international standards specify not more than 25 to 30 feet.
“I don’t know where these people got these specifications,” said an exasperated Khilji, adding: “A distance of 83 feet is needed because we require space for the haul roads on either side of the dual carriageway. Also the distance can vary from place to place, specially where there are stations and where you need more space for platforms, parking lots etc.” Tariq also said the market value of each plot today, and which is approximately 100 square yards, is between 2.5 to 3 million rupees.
“The amount of Rs50,000 offered by KUTC will not even transport our goods from here to Juma Goth let alone build an entire house,” Tariq pointed out.
According to a survey carried out by Urban Resource Centre in 2007, over 72 per cent of the area on either side of the KCR track (belonging to PR) is occupied by commercial plazas, multi-storied residential apartments, factories, godowns, petrol pumps etc.
The remaining 28 per cent is occupied by low income settlements; Omar Colony is another one among the 26 clusters.
“My contention is why only the slums and shanties are surveyed and marked?” said Rana Sadiq, also a resident of Omar Colony.
“We know revitalisation of the KCR is the need of the day but we think the PR, under the guise of the KCR, is trying to get hold of land for commercial purposes. This has happened before.”
“All decisions will be taken even-handedly and impartially,” assured Khilji.
The Urban Resource Centre has been monitoring evictions in the city since 1992 and says reported figures show that more than 40,900 houses have been bulldozed by various government agencies since 1992. Its director Muhammad Younus is wary of the KCR’s settlement plan.
He points out the need to consider the socio-economic needs while developing a resettlement project.
"Any resettlement plan which ignores well known urban planning concept will lead to wastage of national resources. Throwing poor communities away from the city centre would mean loss of their livelihoods, increase in both travel time and cost."
Young Waqar Awan, who lives near the Kala Pul points out: “People planning resettlement must realise the attachment we have within the neighbourhoods we live in, the political and social contacts we have built and which take years to nurture.”
“There is a definite need of a public transport system,” said Yunus, and revitalising the KCR is the need of the hour.
However, as far as the KCR’s resettlement plan is concerned, he favours providing the affectees compensation at market value.
“It has been done in the past,” he said and gives the example of Khasa Hill project - a link road between North Nazimabad and Qasba colony where the community was awarded compensation at market value for their land and house construction in 2007. The same happened during the construction of Shah Faisal Colony and Korangi link bridge in 2008.
Right now transport is in the hands of the informal sector and despite it being deplorably managed, we’re at their mercy because there is no alternative. They enjoy complete monopoly and if they so much as threaten to go on a strike, the government bends double to appease them otherwise the entire city comes to a standstill.
But if the resettlement of those relocated can be done equitably, KCR can end the metropolis’ traffic woes in a cheap and logical way.
The KCR, a 34km single line track, run by PR started in 1964 but disbanded in 1999. In its heydays it catered to over six million commuters annually. It was partly revived in 2000 but failed to attract the commuters because it did not reach their residences in the ever-expanding slums, where 60 per cent of Karachi’s population lives.
This time around, Yunus still has his misgivings. The old loop that the government wants to revive will not fulfill the purpose or provide relief to the commuters. “It needs to cover the maximum area of the city for the rail transport is to be successfully used.”
He further added: “The success of KCR will be determined by a strong network of bus system when the commuter has to make the changeover from the rail to the road and vice versa. Importantly, it has to offer a subsidized fare otherwise it will not become popular.”
He said it was important to develop the bus system simultaneously.
“There is need for new buses, their routes re-arranged, and most importantly, bus terminals to be built with proper service area both for the vehicle and the bus drivers and passengers. Right now the buses park on the roads just about anywhere,” he said.
Additionally, he said, that the pedestrian movement should be made safe and secure around the city, especially for those “who want to cover short distances on foot should be able to move about town without fear of being hit by a vehicle.”
The author is a freelance journalist.