FOR a state to deprive residents of their homes without providing for alternative housing for them is a dereliction of duty. To do so during a pandemic when large numbers of people have lost their means of income is an act of extreme cruelty. A few weeks ago, the long-festering issue of encroachments on the Gujjar and Orangi nullahs in Karachi — that surfaces each time the city experiences heavy monsoon rains — once again exploded into the open. In March, Sindh government authorities began demolishing homes and commercial units located alongside the storm water drains in preparation for the coming monsoon. The residents here are of course from the lower-income strata, those whom the government finds it easiest to pummel into submission when it wants to make a show of ‘establishing the writ of the law’. That is an disingenuous take on the situation for it is the government itself that is guilty of violating the law in multiple ways while allowing these settlements to develop. Many residents have 99-year leases for their properties; they were also provided utility services in the years after they put down their roots here. Certainly the argument is valid that encroachments on storm water drains are a major reason for urban flooding. Equally compelling however, is the stance that the government whose various authorities issued the leases and NOCs for the residents to get gas and electricity connections, must provide alternative accommodation for them. The Sindh High Court has ordered a stay on the evictions until the Supreme Court hearing on the issue.

There is a dire shortage of affordable housing in the city for low-income residents, which is why encroachments come up, yet the government has paid no heed to this pressing issue. What is happening in another part of Karachi, the portion of Malir district where indigenous farming communities are being ruthlessly driven from their land to make way for Bahria Town’s ever-expanding housing project, is another aspect of the same story. Part of the land on which the project is coming up had been reserved for low-cost housing, but the land authority concerned instead handed it over to the for-profit developer. Last week, the locals put up fierce resistance when bulldozers, backed by police personnel, arrived to demolish their homes and clear the land. Several people were injured in the ensuing violence. Such evictions are bound to have serious long-term consequences on social cohesion and ethnic harmony.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2021

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