With the grave insufficiency of star power, DJs and political party flags fluttering in the wind, the desperate slum-dwellers of I-11 Islamabad may be embroiled in one of the least popular struggles this country has ever had the privilege of ignoring.
The Capital Development Authority (CDA), with the efforts of police and rangers, has begun a massive operation of razing a large slum that is home to some 864 families, or more than 8000 residents belonging to the poorest, most vulnerable segment of our society; all living here for over a decade.
As a nation, we have collectively greeted this undertaking with our coldest, stoical side up front; reasoning that the settlements need to be eradicated not only because they illegally occupy the territory, but because they pose significant environmental and security risks to the capital city.
Others have mollified their conscience by asserting that most of the slum-dwellers are unregistered Afghan migrants themselves, whose welfare does not concern us. Apart from that being factually incorrect – with some sources estimating less than 300 of the 8000 residents to be illegal immigrants – by what wonder do we manage to strictly limit our sense of morality to humans, if not Muslim brothers, to the immediate east of the Durand line?
For those who have drilled deep through the thick muck of interminable pseudo-crises dominating our media, and stumbled upon the barely-tweeted articles addressing the I-11 catastrophe, the images are difficult to unsee.
Pictures of women being dragged away screaming from their threatened shanties; residents hurling rocks at the advancing policemen like castle guards perched atop their ramparts; the police responding to the onslaught by raining tear gas canisters on the protesters.
|Children react to the razing of their homes. —Photo by Ishaque Chaudhry and Tanveer Shahzad|
|Resisting women dragged out of their homes by police officials. —Photo from AWP Facebook page|
In summary, it was a harrowing reenactment of the clashes between the Insaafians and the police on 30th August 2014, minus all the controversy. Decidedly, the sound of a ragged slum-dweller taking a baton to his right temple is the rooster’s crow of a Thursday morning.
Scaffolded by social and political organisations, like Awami Workers Party and Kachi Abaadi Alliance, the residents have resisted the eviction drive, and fought the authorities tooth-and-nail for about a year, reminding the government of its duty to ensure basic necessities of life for its citizens, under Article 38-d. Protests have been regularly staged, with a march of 1500 residents from various slums across Islamabad aggressively subdued last year from reaching its protest site outside the Saudi-Pak tower.
Their perseverance doesn’t stem from greed, or a vendetta against the city and its privileged residents. They don’t share the ambitions of land-developers profiting off occupied public space, and keeping the bulldozers away with never-ending legal battles afforded by those very profits. It is not the result of malice; a grudge against the rich, and a deliberate attempt to sully the pristine views of the capital city they get from their luxury apartments.
It is a matter of bare survival – keeping their roofs from being ripped off from over their heads. It’s an existential battle for the slum-dwellers, powered by the basic instinct of self-preservation instilled over millions of years of evolution.
|Slum dwellers protest over the demolition. —Photo from AWP Facebook page|
|A resisting woman is forcibly lifted off her hut. —Photo from AWP Facebook page|
How does the rule of law expect to override that instinct?
In what fantasy, would a resident tip his hat, and quietly walk off into the street as a bulldozer tears through the sum total of three square metres of material that he owns?
Pragmatically speaking, what happens after these slums have been razed and the people have not been allocated another piece of land to build their shelters on? How effective is it for CDA to keep blackballing these impoverished citizens from one territory to another, constantly uprooting them wherever they set their hovels?
Clearly, this is a complex socioeconomic disorder best treated with a scalpel, not a bulldozer.
It is an arduous feat, raising one’s voice for a community we know is illegally occupying a sector of the capital city. How do we mount a defense of these impoverished citizens, before the rationalists who are not emotionally invested in the human costs of this swift justice?
All that we've established – all that can be said for certain – is that the hammer of justice falls fastest and hardest on the most vulnerable and desperate among us.