A tale of woe

Published July 28, 2019
The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.
The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.

AFTER a Supreme Court intervention, Karachi’s Sea Breeze Plaza won’t be demolished for now. Imran Khan’s personal Banigala residence is all set to receive some form of permanent regulatory approval. Malik Riaz will facilitate the PTI’s Naya Pakistan Housing Programme, constructing new housing units in Rawalpindi/Islamabad.

These are in no particular order; nevertheless, there has to be some logic to these decisions. Sea Breeze was originally constructed as a medical facility, which was subsequently misused. The building’s occupants now say they are willing to hand it over; demolishing it, however, would directly affect at least 200 traders. And, of course, only Malik Riaz can build thousands of new housing units and deliver them in time.

But what else ties these decisions together?

That naya Pakistan is not a country for most of its own people. That executive, legislative, judicial and regulatory capture is now complete. Let me explain.

‘Naya’ Pakistan is just ‘purana’ Pakistan on steroids.

At least 12,000 Karachiites lost their homes, shops, and other spaces as part of the demolition drive ordered by the Supreme Court. They included people who had valid permits from various government offices. Some were in Empress Market, while many were unfortunate enough to live or conduct business along the Karachi Circular Railway track. Nothing in their plight — stories of despondency, destruction, and even death — could move any authority to deliver any form of relief. In the ill-informed and undue haste to ‘restore’ Karachi, we brought thousands of the urban poor to the streets. But of course, the 200 Sea Breeze traders had a different kind of access.

The story is similar in Islamabad. An ongoing demolition drive against khokhas has rendered hundreds jobless; why should we care that most were validly licensed to operate? By one count, around 500 khokhas were established after obtaining due permits from competent authorities. For years, they provided critical local needs of food, water, and a place to hang out in poor settlements and other areas with low commercial activity where formal restaurateurs wouldn’t venture. But, of course, a raging messiah quickly realised that Islamabad’s master plan didn’t permit the poor to eat.

However, did the same master plan allow for Imran Khan’s palatial mansion in Banigala? Never mind that the prime minister lives there! Ironically, Mr Khan’s own petitions in judicial forums have led to the demolition of dozens of buildings in Banigala, driving out his poorer neighbours even as his own mansion looks forward to some form of regularisation.

Master plans are always problematic. They reflect economic and political power structures without catering to the most downtrodden; on top is the wanton disregard in which the elite hold them. Khokhas and jhuggis, on the other hand, are poor families’ way out from their exclusion from master plans. This explains both the Banigala mansion and the appearance of slums and khokhas in Pakistan’s ‘only’ planned city.

Regularisation is thus not the problem. Instead, the question is: who gets what? Twelve thousand poor traders and slum dwellers can go to hell but not 200; 500 khokhas can be demolished but not one man’s palace. Refugees and migrants can be brutally evicted from informal settlements in Islamabad, but the same state can do nothing about senators occupying educational institutions’ lands in the heart of the same city. In fact, why not go even further and link a pro-poor housing project with the country’s biggest private encroacher in history (as established by the court)?

We’re driving out the urban poor from their ‘encroachments’ even as the government validates and further strengthens criminals. To rub salt into our wounds, our messiahs cite economic miseries to raise taxes, hike utility tariffs for the poorest, and reduce or eliminate subsidies even on critical facilities like urban transit.

Alongside, and in a parallel reality where our coffers are bursting at the seams, come the daftest policy moves — like the stock market bailout. When you have too much money, a market controlled by the most powerful few deserves more public billions than a transit system used by hundreds of thousands of people a day.

There are countless other examples. Only recently, we had the luggage plastic wrap fiasco. Can we not speculate that the regulator and executive both connived to invent a way for a blue-eyed bigot to make some money? And so what? Remember corporate tax cuts? Go back to purana Pakistan, and remember IPPs with billions of dollars in committed capacity payments?

This naya Pakistan is just purana Pakistan on steroids: those who can, get their way; those who can’t, get kicked; and political and judicial leaders continue to act oblivious to the plight of the people. Purana woe was us. Naya woe is us. And, for that, woe to our messiahs, and woe to us for so eagerly selecting them.

The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.


Twitter: @faizaanq

Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2019



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