THE Sindh minister for katchi abadis observed recently that it was essential to provide 'affordable' housing to the poor on a timely basis to make the land mafia go out of business. Correct, but impractical.
The honourable minister obviously has no inkling about how costly an activity house-building is, how limited the government's resources are, how acute the housing shortage is and what poverty means. For the poor, hapless victims of the land mafia, the officially 'affordable' is actually unaffordable.
Others know even less. On assuming office, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had announced that his government would build one million houses for Rs40bn. Obviously a reality check is called for.
It is estimated that Pakistan needs seven million houses to provide homes to the homeless. Every year the backlog increases by 500,000. How far will one million houses take us? Tasneem Siddiqi, who retired a few years ago as director general of the Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority and now runs an NGO focusing on shelter, is among the most informed men in the country on low-cost housing. He says the minimum that the prime minister's housing scheme would cost is Rs500bn. Small wonder it remains an empty promise.
It is time the government adopted a more down-to-earth approach and provided land rather than houses. Once the poor have the land they know how to generate resources and build their homes incrementally, at an affordable price.
Take the case of Parveen, a mother of five and a domestic worker. Tired of the demands made by her landlord, Parveen decided to acquire her own house. She purchased a 100-square yard plot in one of the 'unregularised' katchi abadis of Karachi for which she paid the 'owner' an inflated price of Rs220,000 in two installments (raised from her savings, donations and interest-free loans from well-wishers). As soon as she got possession of the land, Parveen moved there and has ever since been building her home in bits and pieces.
She is the proud owner of an unpainted, unplastered room with a roof that leaks when it rains. But for Parveen this is her mansion. It is upgraded as and when possible.
If the state had provided land to Parveen at a nominal price her home would have been complete by now. The land would have been in a 'regularised' area with utilities provided according to plan. Ownership would have been secure. The building cost would be lower because the likes of Parveen do not hire the services of contractors and builders. Their family provides free labour. It is as simple as that. Yet the government gives no choice to the 74 per cent of the population subsisting on less than two dollars a day.
Unsurprisingly, shelter has emerged as a sensitive issue in politics. People are denied land even though it is around in abundance and a citizen's right to 'adequate housing' is universally recognised. The PPP itself owes its meteoric rise to power in the early 1970s to its promise of 'roti, kapra aur makan'.
And still the government has no clue about how to meet this need. More than that, it lacks the will to tackle the land mafia which is a formidable force. Since the state refuses to act, land-grabbers fill the vacuum with the state becoming an accomplice in this unlawful activity courtesy the police, local body functionaries and revenue department officials who connive with the land mafia to steal state land and sell it unlawfully to those who desperately need it.
It is a myth that the poor are the beneficiaries of land-grabbing. The fact is that the poor get possession of land at a heavy price but without ownership rights. They can be evicted any day and this is happening all the time.
Tasneem Siddiqi is of the firm belief that the state can provide land to the poor while ensuring that the land mafia doesn't benefit. With a reputation of being one of the most honest bureaucrats of his day, as the director general of the Hyderabad Development Authority in the 1990s, Siddiqi demonstrated this in his Khuda ki Basti scheme. To ensure that the beneficiaries were the poor, the allottees were not given legal title to the land until they had settled there and built their homes.
The situation has now worsened. Previously, dalals posed a threat as they nibbled off bits and pieces of 50 acres. Now political parties have also entered the business of land-grabbing, and with their approval, chunks of hundreds of acres disappear overnight, reportedly with the cooperation of the Board of Revenue. Nothing has changed for the poor except the seller.
Living conditions have also deteriorated. People have tried to work round the problem by encouraging katchi abadi dwellers to improve civic infrastructure in their localities on a self-help basis. This principle governs the working of the Orangi Pilot Project founded by Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan in 1981. Now Father Jorge Anzorena, an Argentine by birth, goes a step further.
He believes the key to success lies in networking and management. An architect by training, Father Jorge travels all over Southeast Asia mobilising the poor to organise themselves to improve their lives.
Under his guidance, squatters in scattered settlements in India, Thailand and the Philippines have linked up at a countrywide level. Thus they have managed to resist evictions — the biggest nightmare of a katchi abadi dweller given the absence of title to the land. They have also undertaken work on infrastructure projects.
According to Father Jorge, when people are involved in their own lives they become active. Once they are active they begin to think. This is what is needed. In Pakistan, this joining of hands at the national level is missing.
After Father Jorge gave an illuminating lecture to a crowd of housing NGO activists at the Urban Resource Centre (Karachi), a senior PPP leader who was present there commented, “He has privatised this business of low-cost housing and excluded the government from it.” Given the government's failure to provide makan to the poor, isn't Father Jorge's approach the best one? n