THE judgement of the Supreme Court permitting the demolition of houses along the Gujjar and Orangi nullahs has reinforced the opinion of a number of civil society organisations that Karachi’s planning and policy decisions are governed by a strong anti-poor bias including by the judicial system. For one, it is almost impossible for low-income communities to access the justice system and were it not for a few public-spirited lawyers, they would probably remain unrepresented. Even when they raise funds to hire lawyers, they are treated with indifference and with hostility and suspicion by the court staff. They are asked to attend hearings which are often rescheduled without notice. Petitioners also complain that they are often not allowed to enter the court to participate in the proceedings.
The Supreme Court has also ordered the demolition of leased houses along the nullahs because it thinks that these leases are fake. One is at pains to understand how it knows this without an investigation. It is also pertinent to ask here if it would also order the demolition of leased houses in middle-income or elite settlements without investigating their leased status.
There are also different criteria for judgements related to the poor and those related to the rich. For example, Bahria Town was fined Rs460 billion, and the land that it illegally occupied was regularised at a fraction of its market value. Nobody associated with this enormous land scam has been arrested or charged. Members of the police force and civil administration that coerced landowners to surrender their lands to Bahria Town and against whom FIRs for murder have been registered, are free for the last many years and proceedings against them do not take place.
Justice eludes those whose homes have been demolished.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Bani Gala residence was regularised at Rs6.66 per square yard and so were the Hyatt Regency violations of the Islamabad Master Plan. Meanwhile, demands of katchi abadi residents for the regularisation of their homes in informal settlements have been consistently denied.
The demolitions along the Karachi nullahs are not purely based on technical issues but are also political in nature. The number of demolitions that were supposed to take place along the Manzoor Colony nullah were 1,205. However, they have been reduced to 56 because the nine-metre roads that were to be built on either side of them are no longer being built. This change, according to the local population, has taken place because the local MPA is from the PPP and he had the ear of the provincial government.
The demolitions along the Gujjar and Orangi nullahs are in PTI constituencies and the residents claim that the PTI have not intervened on their behalf. The reason why the number of houses to be demolished is so high on these nullahs is because nine-metre roads are being built on either side of them. First of all, these roads are illegal because they do not form part of any larger plan for the area. The Supreme Court has ordered the demolition of settlements but has not ordered to stop building of illegal roads. Residents claim, with considerable logic, that they are being built because the Gujjar nullah links the Northern Bypass to the Lyari Expressway and this makes land on either side of it prime property that the developers are anxious to grab. Meanwhile, so far no demolition has taken place, or even officially identified, of illegal construction by elite and government encroachments on the natural drainage system of the city.
The Supreme Court has also not commented on the inadequacy of the compensation being provided to the victims which is Rs15,000 per month as rent for two years. This cannot provide them with a home and after two years of living in insecurity and misery, they will probably find a home along some other nullah thus adding to homelessness in Karachi.
However, the Supreme Court has directed the Sindh government to take appropriate steps to rehabilitate the affected population. But the time period for this or its nature has not been defined. In the case of the Circular Railway demolitions in 2018, the Supreme Court had also directed the administration to provide alternative accommodation to the affectees within a year. However, three years have elapsed and no such action has been taken, nor has the Supreme Court demanded compliance for its orders.
The PTI government wishes to provide housing to the homeless but it is making more people homeless. It also stresses the importance of education but over 30,000 students will not be able to attend school anymore as a result of the Gujjar and Orangi nullahs’ demolition.
Small wonder that Pakistan’s legal system has been rated at 120 out of 128 by the International World Justice Programme. Its reform and a change in its anti-poor bias is necessary for a conflict-free Pakistan and should be treated as a priority.
The writer is an architect.
Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2021