An anti-poor society

Published August 3, 2015
The writer is a freelance columnist.
The writer is a freelance columnist.

ON Thursday, the Capital Development Authority launched an operation to demolish an informal settlement of roughly 8,000 residents situated in sector I-11 of Islamabad. During day one of this activity, about 200 houses were demolished, several people were arrested for protesting, many more were injured by baton-charges, and teargas deployed by police officers reportedly resulted in the death of a six-day old infant due to suffocation.

While others have already commented on the heavy-handed and violent behaviour of the government, it’s also worth reflecting on the reaction shown by the ‘legal’ residents of Islamabad, and those observing these scenes elsewhere. On CDA’s Facebook page and on Twitter, many citizens — presumably all from the comparatively affluent middle class or above — voiced vociferous encouragement for the state’s heavy-handedness. Their arguments of support, inarticulate as they are, betray a reliance on several basic principles.

The first principle, and perhaps the most persuasive for many, is the question of legal right to the land, the argument being that slums and encroachers are illegally squatting on land the CDA allotted to its employees in 1990; hence they should be removed (with force if necessary), and the land returned to its rightful claimants.

The removal of any settlement of more than 40 houses has to be accompanied by a resettlement plan.

Those offering this argument are unaware of several other legal injunctions governing the rules around informal settlements — for starters, settlements existing for more than a certain duration (in Islamabad’s case, since 1985) cannot be forcibly removed, as stated in the National Housing Policy, in several provincial katchi abadi acts, and the National Katchi Abadi Policy of 2001.

Recently, in the wake of increased militancy in and around the capital, the government decided to revisit the issue of katchi abadis, ostensibly for security purposes. As per its own policy framework, the removal of any settlement of more than 40 houses has to be accompanied by a resettlement plan, keeping in view the livelihood and shelter requirements of the residents. In the I-11 case, no such option is being given to the residents, and they’re simply told to ‘go back from where they came’.

The second issue concerning legality is the citizenship of those residing in I-11. Initially, the government declared that the residents were Afghan refugees, who — for whatever reason — have even less of a right to reside on the outskirts of the capital city.

This, as many have already pointed out, is blatantly untrue; something that the CDA reluctantly admitted after the operation began. In a 2012 survey conducted by the UNHCR, only one-tenth of the total number of households in the settlement were Afghan, while the rest were migrants from parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata. This number has decreased even further in the last two years.

Moreover, research carried out by the All Pakistan Alliance for Katchi Abadis, and the Awami Workers Party, shows voter lists from this settlement going all the way back to the 1985 non-party general elections. Most of the households being evicted possess Pakistani citizenship, which can be verified through any number of documents — CNICs, B-Forms, voter-lists — and have been participating in the electoral process. In essence, the CDA machinery is telling Pakistani citizens that they have no right to live in or around Islamabad.

Apart from the sudden infatuation with legality — which, curiously enough, is mostly missing when other kinds of constitutional and legal violations take place in this country — we’re witnessing moral, ethical, and even aesthetic arguments.

One such variant is labelling informal settlements as dens of criminality, and those residing in them, as land mafias. It is well and truly bewildering to see such blanket declarations, which justify oppressive state action that is nothing short of collective punishment. All search operations conducted by security agencies and law enforcement agencies have yielded nothing from the katchi abadis, and thus this consistent portrayal of working class people residing in squalid, terrible conditions as some sort of privileged mafia amounts to ignorance of the most astonishing variety.

Finally, one sees people cheerleading the operation in the name of preserving Islamabad’s beauty, and its status as the exclusive sanctuary of the elite. Such sentiment does little else but expose the naked classism of Pakistan’s state and society, wherein working class people should disappear after fulfilling their duties as drivers, cooks, hawkers, guards, and labourers.

All these arguments seem wrong, in fact, especially wrong, coming from a subsection of society that has benefitted the most from state subsidies and selective application or misapplication of laws.

The state has, literally, created entire segments of the elite and the affluent in Islamabad and other parts of the country by providing jobs, and allocating land at throwaway prices to its mostly incompetent employees. It provides subsidised, centrally located housing and accommodation to its own officers, who often leave work at 2 pm (on a good day). It continues to subsidise elite playgrounds like the Islamabad Club, which pays less than a paltry Rs700,000 in annual rent for 244 acres of prime suburban land, as reported in the media, and provides blanket cover to the 72-acre gun club, illegally built on government land.

Almost every day, throughout the country, state sanction is given to elite housing developers who build illegally, sell and distribute plots, and then seek approval retrospectively from the authorities. The only reason they are able to do this time and again is because of their affluence and connections, something that the katchi abadi residents, unfortunately, do not have.

The entire process of forcible evictions, and the violence deployed by the state, confirms that the government and its machinery operate on an anti-poor logic. What it also exposes, in the same process, is a deep-seated class bias, and the lack of any sense or idea of social justice in the minds of the more fortunate in the country.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2015

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