Five million homes

September 07, 2018


THE Supreme Court of Pakistan and the newly elected government of Pakistan appear to share a penchant for making big promises to this country’s long suffering people, especially the poor. One of the PTI’s big election slogans was that it would create five million new homes for those who don’t have them while the court in recent times has also taken suo motu notice of the plight of the living conditions of the country’s long-suffering minorities, especially those living in katchi abadis dotting Pakistan’s urban landscape.

I suppose one could argue that the current chief justice and the new PTI government cannot be held to account for the stunning failure of successive policymakers and planners to address what all experts in the field call a major urban housing crisis — the tens of millions of Pakistanis living in katchi abadis without security of tenure being the most stark example of this crisis. Despite the fact that many of these experts along with political organisations working with katchi abadi dwellers and the urban poor more generally have been advocating substantive policy reform for decades, governments, courts and bureaucracies have contented themselves with saying much and doing little.

The question, as ever, is whether the current crop of judges and elected policymakers will be any different. The bureaucracy will do what the bureaucracy does: continue to prop up an obsolete and elitist planning paradigm driven by the interests of the rich and powerful. What is needed is political will to give security of tenure to those currently living in katchi abadis and to redress this elitist planning paradigm so that low-income housing settlements are designed and built in the future to address the major demand that exists and is likely to grow.

Let’s just ignore the fact that the PTI promised to create 5m new homes — while eliminating corruption and creating 10m jobs — within 100 days of coming to power. The government wouldn’t be able to create 5m new homes within 1,000 days of coming to power. But even a small movement in the right direction would constitute progress, and some validation of the rhetoric around ‘naya Pakistan’.

Political will is needed to give security of tenure to katchi abadi dwellers.

Meanwhile the court under the current chief justice is likely to continue taking up such issues at will. However, many more will be left by the wayside (tens of thousands of cases have been in limbo for years because they do not generate news headlines). Similarly, the cases that are taken up — like that of Christian katchi abadi dwellers — will be left to wilt when they become old news.

But in case there is a genuinely democratic spirit guiding the claims of the court and government of the day, here are a few short steps to addressing our urban housing crisis, and making our cities more equitable, sustainable and livable:

  1. Resettle with immediate effect those who have been evicted from katchi abadis in the recent past along with those who have been displaced by military operations living in miserable conditions in refugee camps to demonstrate seriousness about housing for the poor. This will have the added effect of showing that the government/ state is serious about rehabilitating poor Pakhtuns displaced by terrorism and military operations and within whom alienation from the state’s instrumental approach to their lives and histories has grown over the past few years.

  2. Initiate a public-awareness campaign about katchi abadis — particularly amongst the urban middle class and the civil bureaucracy — that identifies the urban poor as the backbone of our cities and discourages their routine categorisation as ‘encroachers’ and ‘terrorists’. Instead, rich and powerful encroachers should be held to account.

  3. Regulate the urban real estate market in general, and elite property developers in particular, with an emphasis on changing urban land use to ensure that low-income communities have as much of a ‘right to the city’ as richer segments of society.

  4. Address the root causes of the mass migrations towards our already saturated urban centres; these include structural issues such as a lack of livelihood opportunities, as well as forced migrations due to war/ terrorism and ecological disasters such as floods and droughts (and climate change more generally).

These represent the tip of a very big iceberg that successive governments have refused to even think about. These policy failures of governments are, of course, tied directly to the nature and raison d’être of the state itself, and the establishment in particular.

Yesterday officialdom did what it does on our annual defence day, while the rest of us watched on wondering whether ‘national security’ will ever accommodate the millions without education, health and housing. More than ever, we are waiting to see whether those who claim to be the harbingers of change will move beyond populism and start to walk the talk.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2018