Lives of the poor

11 Dec 2018


The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

THE past few weeks in Karachi have seen an anti-encroachment drive that has affected livelihoods and living. Those spearheading the drive justify their actions, saying they are legal, and those using the spaces are painted as land grabbers. Meanwhile, another cause for concern is the intended clearing of land along the route of the moribund Karachi Circular Railways.

The underprivileged in Karachi require a comprehensive plan so that they can have a legal right to exist and operate, with the city benefiting from their services.

The foremost issue is land for housing. About half a century ago, land was distributed by city authorities to various categories of urban dwellers according to their need. Land use was determined on the basis of individual and collective social requirements. Today, land is acquired through clout, capital and clandestine coercion of the institutions concerned.

The poor cannot acquire land through purchase or force as they possess neither surplus capital nor political influence. The state institutions have a responsibility to ensure the poor can access the land market. Existing legal instruments such as the fair implementation of Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority (SKAA) Act, 1987, is an option.

Karachi’s poor must have the legal right to live and operate.

This law was promulgated during the tenure of prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo. The objective of the law was to regularise those squatter settlements which had come up and evolved till March 1985 (revised to June 1997), that existed in ecologically safe locations, had acquired the approval of the land-owning agency/ department concerned, and comprised over 40 households. By implementing the law, more than 300 squatter settlements were regularised. The past few years have seen the work of regularisation slowing down due administrative reasons.

As migrations to the city have continued unabated, survey and subsequent regularisation of squatter settlements must be undertaken along scientific lines. With advanced digital mapping tools available, the exercise can be done with greater accuracy.

In the absence of an institutionalised option of accessing shelter, Karachi’s poor developed settlements on left-over and marginal land. An elitist view of such neighbourhoods — referred to as katchi abadis — is that they are breeding grounds and safe havens for criminals and the inhabitants are not deserving of social interaction with the rest. In other words, katchi abadis are looked upon with contempt and as an eyesore. They are viewed as a part of the problem, not the solution.

In fact, katchi abadis are not built with criminal intent, isolated cases notwithstanding. They emerge from unusual sites as there are no alternative locations. When the residents of settlements along the KCR were interviewed recently, they said as much.

The right to run hawker stalls, small- to medium-sized shops and other services also require serious review. The poor do not have the means to purchase or rent shops and commercial spaces that are formally available. But their services and merchandise are needed in shopping areas, transport terminals, business districts, railway stations and traffic junctions.

In many parts of the world, open public spaces are made available to hawkers according to land-utilisation plans. These plans demarcate the limits and conditions within which vending activity is allowed. In India, the Street Vendors Act, 2014, is an important legislative tool that regulates this activity in urban areas. A town-vending committee, with representatives of street hawkers, is constituted to oversee the management of vending activity. Matters relating to space adjustments, vending licences and extortion and bribery are dealt with by the committee. Similar laws and provisions exist in the UK, the US and many other countries.

Sindh can consider introducing an amendment in the existing local government laws to make provisions for vending activity to exist on formal and legal grounds. The affectees of various anti-encroachment operations should be documented and accommodated in formally created places to save them from financial destruction.

The provincial government and KMC must identify locations for setting up temporary bazaars to facilitate vendors and retailers in areas where a greater number of shops and stalls have been razed. The design and construction of stalls should ensure both functionality and aesthetics. Women entrepreneurs and sales staff must be encouraged. The same support should be extended to the disabled.

Image lifting and communication is another strategy that can help in scaling up the operations of such bazaars. Innovative ads and campaigns can be designed to boost commercial potential. Introduction of banking kiosks and provision of credit card facility can enhance the performance of bazaars. Similarly bazaars can also become tools for stretching target subsidies in underprivileged localities.

The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2018