WITH Supreme Court instructions to proceed with demolitions along the Orangi and Gujjar nullahs in Karachi, more and more families will find themselves on the streets. The ML-1 railway upgradation project could result in evictions from 22 katchi abadis in Karachi. Those previously evicted are still sitting on the rubble of their homes. The court has ordered rehabilitation which must be carried out without delay.
Housing is the foremost need of the urban poor who do not possess bankable assets. Incentive-based government initiatives such as the Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme are inaccessible because the poor have no tangible assets to pledge to obtain housing loans. Most are employed in the informal sector where documented evidence of income is impossible to provide. Many such households take the risk of building informal homes in invisible, difficult locations, often next to nullahs as they have no other place to live.
For the vulnerable, a shelter is much more than a dwelling.
There have been past precedents of katchi abadi regularisation and the Sindh Katchi Abadis Act has been in place since 1987. But legal provisions are entirely subject to the political dynamics of the city. The PPP apparently believes that katchi abadi dwellers are not necessarily its voters and that extending dwelling rights may change constituency politics. Interestingly, the local party claiming to represent urban Sindh also appears against regularisation. Off and on, political leaders make populist announcements. In 2016, the Sindh chief minister directed the concerned departments to transform 100 katchi abadis into model settlements. One hardly heard more about this afterwards.
For the vulnerable, a shelter is much more than a dwelling. It constitutes their right to exist in the city. It provides our rural folk with a chance to free themselves from the shackles of a mediaeval culture and feudal order. In cities, there is better access to education, healthcare, interactions with people from other socioeconomic brackets and livelihood opportunities. The benefits of diversity in a city cannot be realised if the administrative and judicial machinery embark on an anti-poor enterprise.
It is also worth mentioning that the opulent lifestyle of our elite is possible only because of the work of the so-called menial workers around them. A household in any affluent neighbourhood employs more than half-a-dozen full-time or part-time domestic workers to shore up the pomp they wish to display. Now those involved in maintenance services such as plumbing, electrical and air-conditioning repairs etc that are necessary for the rich to maintain their ‘image’ are being rendered homeless.
Thanks to the high prices of formal housing, many low-scale government employees, contract workers, vendors, small-scale shopkeepers, primary school teachers and others also have no option but to live in katchi abadis. Our small-, medium- and large-scale manufacturing enterprises derive their labour force from these expanded settlements. If evictions continue, trade relations and the social structure will be greatly impacted. As land has become highly contested, low-income settlements are becoming very overcrowded. Orangi, Korangi, Baldia, Landhi, Qasba Colony and many other neighbourhoods have small plots accommodating tall buildings with weak foundations.
Cities that only look after their rich are bound to fail. But wise rulers can learn from past initiatives. There are many examples from within the country and continent which can provide policy inspiration to our decision-makers.
The poor require a targeted supply of land for housing on which they can incrementally construct and add in accordance with what is convenient and affordable. Housing credit must be modified with special packages for the urban poor. The banking sector must intervene to extend loans for the purchase of land for housing through specially devised tools. At present, housing credit is only available to those who either own a titled piece of land or possess another bankable asset. The poor possess neither. If access to land is not made possible, housing will remain a distant dream.
Finally, this situation offers a strategic opportunity to the federal government to extend relief to the affected people. The Naya Pakistan Housing Authority can come up with a pilot project to accommodate the evicted families. Federal sites such as the Federal Capital Area near Liaquatabad could possibly absorb the population in multistoried housing. With proper targeting to identify the real beneficiaries, a housing programme can be devised. This initiative can be replicated in several other locations in the city with proper feasibility studies, planning and execution with community participation.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2021