Encroach if rich

Published November 16, 2018
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

WHEN images of the extensive clear-up operation in Karachi’s historical Empress Market hit our TV screens and social media platforms last week, a set of fairly typical reactions followed. The most vociferous was the one proclaiming a victory for the proverbial rule of law and the imperative of protecting public property from encroachers. This refrain generally emanates from ‘cultured’ circles, betraying a heavy class bias that makes a mockery of the principle that all citizens are indeed equal before the law.

‘Encroachers’ hailing from the lower orders of society — which include small vendors but more prominently tens of millions of poor households — only make claims to public property via the connivance of state functionaries. Put simply, state functionaries (and small-time land dealers) receive regular payments from ‘encroachers’ in exchange for occupation of public property which, strictly speaking, is illegal.

If and when high-ups in the bureaucracy, or in the superior judiciary, order that the land be reclaimed, all under-the-table payments are forgotten and the law is dramatically enforced. No policymaker or politician stands in the way, despite the fact that they otherwise spend a lot of time pontificating about the needs of all segments of the population, particularly the poor.

Indeed, during such operations no one seems concerned with the very basic matter of where the displaced vendors and katchi abadi dwellers will go. After all, they still have livelihood and residential needs and will inevitably find a way to rehabilitate themselves in the city — which in turn needs them to supply labour for a host of tasks that no other class in the urban environment is willing to provide.

The illegality of the rich is almost always glossed over.

In effect, such ad hoc operations reinforce a persistent long-term anti-poor bias in our planning and development paradigm, which means that the underlying structural crises — in our cities in particular — are exacerbated. The population of dispossessed people is, after all, increasing, whereas our policies and actions are becoming progressively less responsive to this very population.

This ugly reality can only be understood in its entirety when one acknowledges that the most flagrant violations of the law in terms of encroachments are committed by the rich and powerful. Take the case of the sitting prime minister’s Banigala bungalow; the Supreme Court has also taken up this matter but has granted relief to the prime minister by simply asking him to pay for his property to be regularised. There are similar cases in which no authority even bothers to take notice of encroachments, or illegal land acquisitions, most notably those undertaken by elite property developers.

In sum, the poor are penalised for sitting on small plots of government land, whereas the illegality of the rich is almost always glossed over. Over the course of Pakistan’s history, there have been occasions when governments have made promises to the poor to regularise katchi abadis, or provide formal licences to small-time vendors. But these promises are never kept in their entirety, and all the while the anti-poor bias in our planning paradigm becomes more entrenched, while the rich continue to encroach at will.

This ingrained elitism not only plays out in reproducing our gaping class divide, but also vis-à-vis the natural environment. Land, forests, water, mineral resources — all are being pillaged at rates that are simply unsustainable. The often desperate attempts of poorer segments to survive the daily travails of life certainly contribute to the problem, but the primary responsibility for this growing ecological crisis lies with the rich and powerful, along with our planners who are generally unconcerned with the fate of future generations.

In my experience, the poor are willing to contribute for whatever public resources they use. Katchi abadi dwellers would happily pay the government (or private sector) for affordable housing rather than stuffing the pockets of low-level state functionaries. The same applies to small-time vendors who would prefer security of tenure over personalised under-the-table transactions. The burden of responsibility again falls on those whose very job it is to make formal arrangements to facilitate the livelihood and residential needs of all segments of the population.

While the Empress Market operation was operationalised by the KMC, the sitting government’s silence speaks louder than words. The prime minister recently constituted a task force for housing to build five million homes. But even a layperson observing developments in the process can gauge the absence of serious planning, and there is every reason to believe that unless on-ground realities are acknowledged and political will generated, this project will also fall prey to speculators and rent-seeking state functionaries.

Moral of the story: encroach if you are rich and expect more of the same if you are poor.

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

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2018

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