Islamabad the Beautiful is perhaps the cleanest city in Pakistan, with the scenic Margalla hills and nature smiling down upon it from behind every boulevard. The underpasses and overhead bridges make one thank God for something that is going right in this country. However, there is more to it.
Snuggled amidst the planned sectors from E to I, there lies a population that shoulders the responsibility of sanitising this city of diplomats.
The corridors of power glisten from the sweat that pours down these ‘cleaners’ at the end of a hard day only to return to unhygienic squalors with minimum electricity, water and proper sewage disposal.
There are community-specific slums in Islamabad; the slum found in the sector I-11 belongs primarily to the Afghan refugee population, while those in sectors F-6, F-7, G-7, G-8 and G-12 belong to the Pakistani Christian and Muslim population. The people that reside in these slums are inherently poor and lack basic facilities of life.
However, they perform a very important task of providing essential services to the permanent residents of Islamabad. Most of the male and female population in these slums is employed as sanitary workers, guards and cleaners in the Capital Development Authority, as well as in nearby households.
This not only provides the marginalised slum population with employment opportunities, but serves as a “cheap recruitment pool” for the well-to-do of the city.
Now, the tide is turning for the not-so-well-to-do of the city. The Capital Development Authority has, following an order from the Islamabad High Court, started an eviction process that has met with stiff resistance from the civil society within the city.
Know more: Slum-dwellers protest razing of homes
Usama Khilji, an activist from Islamabad, said,
The middle and elite class of Islamabad sees the slum dwellers of the city from a lens of privilege, not realising that without these low-cost housing with minimum facilities, the working class poor have nowhere to go.
Even those who wished the government to "uproot the squatter settlements overnight," believe that this should not be done unless there is alternate housing available.
"The CDA is committed to comply with its entrusted mandate as per the CDA Ordinance of 1960 and upholding of its master plan in all circumstances," said an officer of the Anti-Encroachment Wing of CDA on the condition of anonymity. "The CDA has expanded over the years, the Anti-Encroachment Wing was only added in 2006, so you can very well imagine how effective we are," he said.
So, while the CDA has a newfound motivation in the form of a court order, the civil society sees it as state-sanctioned forced eviction of the poor who have nowhere else to go.
Some believe the so-called civil society is standing up for the rights of the slum dwellers only because they offer cheap labour and an extensive pool of domestic servants, so it is not really the rights of the poor they fight for, but against the danger to their own standards of living.
I talked to Murtaza, a shop owner in the I-11 squatter settlement, who said he was originally from Mohmand Agency. According to him, someone from the government came three months ago and told the slum dwellers to vacate, but they didn't. The three-day notices kept coming, but the people did not move.
"If they force us out, we will go back to Mohmand," he said.
Others disagreed. Gulalai Khan, a fruit vendor originally from Mohmand Agency said he would not go back because it wasn't safe for his children.
"We are 10 people living in a small hut here, if they forcefully evict us, we will be on the road."
He said that he hoped a solution would come through from the jirga negotiating with the government, which has decided to hold off for two more days.
Faryab Gul, an entrepreneur from Islamabad believed the government should provide alternate housing to those who are Pakistanis and simply throw out the Afghans, for these settlements are nothing more than a den of drugs and crime, a danger to our children and our city.
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It is public knowledge that one can find all sorts of drugs and illegal alcohol from within some, if not all of these settlements, but the counterargument is, that crime is everywhere – what about the elite criminals living in mansions within the sectors of Islamabad?
The CDA has repeatedly tried to tackle this issue, but for one reason or another, progress has eluded us, as it is with almost every government entity. Some years ago, the Authority decided that out of the 11 recognised squatter settlements, five would be demolished, as they were built on plots for other purposes. These included Dhok Najju, Maskeenabad, Benazir Colony, Muslim Colony and Afghan Basti. The remaining ones in F-6/2, F-7/4, G-7/1, G-7/2, G-7/3 and G-8/1 were to be upgraded on an incremental basis.
The year is 2015 now, Afghan Basti and every other settlement is right where it was before. The settlements have become extensive elaborate towns within the city. The abadi found in the sector G-12 is so extensive that the residents have made luxury car showrooms, mansions and even hotels next to the Kashmir Highway.
All the internal roads of the city that divide Islamabad on a grid, stop at the end of G-11, after that is the wall of the Maira Abadi settlement – a sort of a no-man's land – and then, the orphaned sector G-13, forgotten and delinked from the rest of the city.
According to some residents of the Afghan Basti, there are over 5,000 people living there. Many more live in places like what could have been the sector G-12. Where will these thousands of people go, if evicted forcefully, without a rehabilitation plan?
The government does not have an answer. It just wants the land back.
The settlers have no answer either, they just want to stay put. Perhaps, what the government ought to do is devise a development program and offer low-cost housing.