ALL over the world the pandemic has hit the poor more than anyone else. Especially those who have no homes or who live under the threat of evictions in informal settlements where no piped water or electricity is available and where people do not have secure jobs.
For these reasons the United Nations has asked governments to place a moratorium on forced evictions and provide relief for home renters who are being displaced because of an inability to pay rent.
Many governments have followed the UN advice. London, Lisbon, Vancouver, Amsterdam, Barcelona, for example, had already taken steps to convert hotels, tourist lodges, and commercial premises into homes for the vulnerable. Support for paying rent is also being provided by Thailand, and the Philippines has put a moratorium on evictions. In the United States the policy is that “who have lost their jobs should not worry about losing their homes”. As a result, payments for mortgage finance have been suspended. In some other cities, such as San Francisco, temporary housing is being built for vulnerable populations and in Pune (India) redevelopment of semi-serviced slums in the city centre, on high-value land, are planned at the same location — something unthinkable in the past.
However, in Pakistan what is happening is the opposite of the UN advice. There is a continuing demolition of homes of poor people under various garbs and the state of insecurity in an age of increasing poverty is multiplying. Karachi, Sindh’s capital, has borne the brunt of these involuntary evictions where 1,100 households consisting of over 12,000 population, are living on the ruins of their demolished homes, without water and electricity. This demolition was carried out by a Supreme Court order which had also mentioned that the establishment would resettle these households within one year. More than two years have elapsed since then but neither plans for rehabilitation have been made nor has the Supreme Court taken any action against the non-compliance of its orders.
Karachi has borne the brunt of the evictions.
As a result of the heavy rains of 2020, the government decided to widen the existing nullahs in Karachi. As a result, about 15,000 households are estimated to be displaced. The population was not consulted in the process and through a satellite survey, houses that were to be demolished were determined. The fact that each house contains many more than just one household was ignored. Similarly, since the rooftops of houses are interlinked often two or more houses were taken as one. As the residents say, “This was a survey of buildings and not of people”.
Bulldozing was mostly done without any warning and is continuing during Ramazan and lockdown in violation of SOPs. In Hindu neighbourhoods, bulldozing was carried out during Holi, and in Christian neighbourhoods, during Easter. Conversations with the affected population by the Urban Resource Centre show that over 70 per cent have lost their jobs as they were contract labour; it is difficult now to have two meals a day and so children complain of hunger; and bulldozing would eventually affect the schooling of over 30,000 students. As a result, hatred for the government and the elite of this country has reached levels that I have never experienced before.
But the story does not end here. The goths on the periphery of Bahria Town have, for the past seven or eight years, been constantly coerced into selling their land to the contractor. In the past two weeks, attempts at demolishing a number of goths with the help of the police and the goons of Bahria Town have been made. Heavy machinery has been moved into the area and continues to demolish orchards and threaten the locals that if they do not sell, they will be encircled and will not be able to exit their settlements.
It is incomprehensible as to why in the case of the nullah settlements the government has behaved in such a cruel and shameless manner. This problem could have been resolved by involving the community in surveying and in planning alternative accommodation as has been done in the past. It is also not understandable why the Pakistani state should support a developer against its own people in depriving them of land and income.
Perhaps the reasons are deeply entrenched in the system as is evident from two statistics. A Banigala estate was regularised recently at Rs6.66 per square yard whereas a katchi abadi house in Karachi’s Orangi is regularised at Rs208 per square yard plus a Rs30,000 bribe. The Supreme Court ordered Bahria Town to pay Rs460 billion for legalising 16,896 acres that it owned. This works out to Rs5,625 per square yard whereas the current price of residential land in Bahria Town is Rs45,000 plus per square yard. Maybe an important step would be to move towards some form of equity in land ownership and transactions.
The writer is an architect, urban planner, and social activist.
Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2021