Civil society distressed by anti-encroachment drives targeting the poor

January 22, 2020

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Members of civil society speak at the KPC on Tuesday.—White Star
Members of civil society speak at the KPC on Tuesday.—White Star

KARACHI: To show solidarity with the affectees of the anti-encroachment drives that took place in the city last year, members of civil society called a press conference to share an open letter written by them to the political parties of Sindh at the Karachi Press Club on Tuesday.

Reading out the letter, Zahid Farooq of the Urban Resource Centre pointed out how the sudden removal of encroachments from the Empress Market and along the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) tracks had added to the misery of people with an increase in unemployment and poverty. “There have been too many folks affected by the government’s action in the first phase alone, and now the second phase promising far more devastation is hanging like a sword over these poor people’s heads.

“While the small businesses of vendors around the Empress Market were wrapped up and their children pulled out of schools because the parents just couldn’t afford to educate them, the KCR affectees are living in piles of rubble under the open sky. They are not just experiencing unemployment and poverty but mental torture, too. The circumstances of some [have] even pushed them to suicide,” he said, adding that such types of severe action only targeted the poor while illegal encroachments in the posh areas of Karachi continued.

‘The entire city is an encroachment’

Architect and town planner Arif Hasan said that the encroachments were there in the first place because of the governments’ failure in providing the people the facilities they needed. “That’s how unplanned and haphazard development takes place as the city grows. There was no planning for businesses, for industry, for workers, etc. Where there was a need for warehouses they came up wherever people needed storage, where there was a need of the people to find dwelling, they built small huts and the katchi abadis came up. There were no planned bus terminals. Those too came up according to the requirements of people and thus the entire city is an encroachment,” he said.

Writes open letter to political parties in Sindh

“But still it is a living city and the Supreme Court’s saying to turn it into how it used to be years ago was very strange, because how can one turn back the clock? Also it is important to mention here that the informal or street economy contributed 30 to 40 per cent to the country’s total economy. It was a big sector of our economy which we killed by turning against our small business folk. There are laws to support street economy in other countries such as India, Thailand, Iran and Egypt. We should do that here as well and register our roadside markets,” he said.

‘They are not terrorists or bandits’

“Another problem here is that people don’t have a place to live. In the rural areas they live on the floodplains and wherever they can find land. But before calling them encroachers and removing them, it is the government’s responsibility to provide them alternative places to live. After all, they are not terrorists or bandits. They are only living in these places because the government didn’t provide them with adequate housing,” he said, adding that the people living along the KCR tracks had bought the land they live on from Railways people and so they had the right to live there.

Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui of Khuda Ki Basti said that he had already created a model living area for the poor. He said that the late prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s slogan was ‘Roti, kapra aur makaan’. “To an extent he did provide cheap and affordable bread to the people, but where he couldn’t provide them housing, he regularised katchi abadis. These places came up unplanned around industry or other places of work. After Bhutto even Zia regularised katchi abadis,” he said, adding that many people here lived on two dollars a day and it was not possible for them to buy land for housing.

“Here the government announces housing schemes in the name of the poor but the plots remain open because they are given to those well-to-do people who don’t need to build another house,” he said.

‘A violation of human rights’

Asad Butt of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said that not providing jobs and a place to live was a huge violation of human rights by the government. “But every government is looking to complete its tenure without doing anything for the people. There is a lack of political will,” he said.

Researcher, historian and anthropologist Gul Hassan Kalmati said that all the goths, poultry farms, dairy farms are now vanishing thanks to posh residential areas such as Bahria Town, DHA City, etc. “The Bahria Icon Tower has been built on an amenity plot but the bulldozers here come for the poor only,” he said.

Social activist Naghma Iqtedar said that she wanted to see the Sindh government act on Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s statement where he said that he held his head in shame that they had been unable to protect the poor and the helpless from the ‘heartless so-called anti-encroachment drive’.

“He has demanded that the Sindh government pass a legislation mandating relocation, rehabilitation and compensation before any eviction,” she said.

Social activist and founder of Tehrik-i-Niswan Sheema Kermani said that displacement hurt womenfolk the most. “They are living under the sky with no privacy and no toilets. Such misery leads to violence, especially sexual violence,” she said.

Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research said they were not against the KCR but they wanted the government not to act in such a rush before knowing if the circular railway was even possible. “The Supreme Court wanted the KCR to become functional within two weeks and the government acted before doing any research or asking the experts what they thought about the matter. The work was to be done by professionals, not wishful thinkers, after all,” he said.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2020