DOWNED BY THE DRAINS OF KARACHI

Published June 27, 2021
Houses are bulldozed along the Gujjar Nullah | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Houses are bulldozed along the Gujjar Nullah | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

It’s been exactly two months since Maria Yaqub, a 21-year-old college student, saw her home located near Gujjar Nullah turn into rubble. When the bulldozers came, the young woman requested the men to wait for just a minute. “I wanted to take a photo of my late parents that was hanging in a room inside,” she tells Eos.

The men gestured for Maria to hurry. She rushed inside. Many of her belongings, her memories, her course books were around her. Overwhelmed with emotion, she decided to grab her parents’ photograph first.

She must have been inside for only a few minutes. But the men outside were apparently done waiting. As Maria was trying to take the photo off the wall, she heard the machines turn on. The giant yellow mechanical claw hit a wall, causing it to collapse immediately.

“I heard screaming and shouting [from outside],” Maria recreates the traumatic day from memory. “The photo frame slipped from my hands. I ran out and escaped with my life — nothing else.”

***

The mass evictions of poor people and demolitions of houses as a result of the Supreme Court-ordered ‘anti-encroachment’ drive near Karachi’s storm water drains is ostensibly to prevent a recurrence of last year’s flooding in the city. But will it really work? And who will pay for the incredible human cost of incompetence?

Tayyababad in Kausar Niazi Colony, next to the Gujjar Nullah, had been home to Maria and her family for generations. “My mother was born here,” she says. “And when she grew up, her rishta also came from this very locality.”

“My sister, brothers and I grew up here, my nieces and nephews were born here,” she says. “And this is also where we lost our parents.”

Maria was just seven when her mother died. Her father passed away soon after, when she was only nine. “Losing one’s parents so early in life makes you grow up before time,” she says.

With the demolition, she lost the last-standing memory of her parents. And that was not all. The family didn’t just lose one house in the area, but two. She was living under one roof with her two elder brothers and their families, while her married older sister and her family were living at another home near the Ziauddin Hospital that was also demolished.

Gujjar Nullah affectees argue with officials | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Gujjar Nullah affectees argue with officials | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Today, the families are awaiting the meagre compensation of 90,000 rupees per home.

“My brothers and sister have been asking for their cheques, but are not getting a straight answer from anywhere,” she says. “Apparently, their IDs are not coming up in the government’s data, although they have legal lease papers for both homes.”

Their homes no longer exist. And they are being told that the government does not have data to support their claims that they ever existed. Yet, according to Maria, they still received an electricity bill for one of the homes for the month during which it was demolished.

“This is a city of utter chaos and lawlessness,” says Maria. “They had also come to bulldoze our homes in 2016. Our Tayyababad home used to have six rooms and they demolished two rooms in the front, saying that there was going to be nullah cleaning and that we had exceeded our limits.” Maria and her family accepted this and started living in the now four-room residence. But years went by and no nullah cleaning took place.

The city “remembered” the nullah again only after last year’s record-breaking rains, and wanted to demolish houses — including Maria’s family home and her sister’s home — in the area.

“My brothers and brother-in-law ran from pillar to post to save our homes, but when they were not making any headway, they decided to move to a rented place,” a dejected Maria says.

Abid Asghar stands amid the rubble of what used to be his home, showing the house’s lease papers | Courtesy Abid Asghar
Abid Asghar stands amid the rubble of what used to be his home, showing the house’s lease papers | Courtesy Abid Asghar

Her sister’s home was demolished on April 4. And her family home was torn down on April 27, while she and her siblings were still in the process of moving out. “Many pieces of furniture, clothes and cooking utensils also got buried under the rubble as the machines and their unfeeling drivers went about their work,” she says. But more painful than leaving behind these things was losing their family home.

The family is still dealing with the emotional toll of it all. “There was a little plastic crane among my nephew’s toys,” Maria says. “The first time he saw it after the incident, he was terrified. He started screaming that [the crane] was for breaking homes.

“Preoccupied by our own troubles, we sometimes forget about the trauma our children must be going through.”

The family now lives in a smaller place nearby that they had hurriedly rented for 24,000 rupees a month. The Awami Workers Party (AWP) helped them find this accommodation in a rush. No other political party offered any support, Maria says.

Hers is just one of the thousands of families going through this turmoil.

“There was a little plastic crane among my nephew’s toys,” Maria says. “The first time he saw it after the incident, he was terrified. He started screaming that [the crane] was for breaking homes.”

QUESTIONING THE SYSTEM

Abid Asghar, head of the Gujjar Nullah Affectees’ Committee, has set up the committee’s office right at the Gujjar Nullah. “I am a former resident who also went through eviction and demolition myself, but I am here and trying to help everyone in the same boat as me find alternative accommodations on rent,” he tells Eos.

“There is no hope now after the Supreme Court has shown us no sympathy and cancelled all stay orders,” he says, referencing the court’s recent decision to dismiss an application filed by some affectees of the anti-encroachment operations around Gujjar and Orangi Town nullahs, asking for a stay order. The court directed the authorities to continue the operation, despite the applicants’ lawyer’s arguing that the properties demolished were leased and that they have not been offered appropriate compensations.

As architect and town planner Arif Hasan recently noted in a Dawn op-ed, the court also said the leases were fake. “One is at pains to understand how it knows this without an investigation,” he wrote.

“We know the homes will be demolished just like the front row structures have been,” Asghar says. “They did that to make their intentions clear. Everyone is worried and defenseless.”

Asghar is now helping the poor families find accommodations in areas such as Surjani Town, Taiser Town, Khuda ki Basti, Lyari, in the goths, etc. These neighbourhoods are far from the affectees’ Gujjar Nullah residences. Not only are these communities being displaced, they are being sent farther from their places of work and children’s schools.

Demolitions under way at the Gujjar Nullah | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Demolitions under way at the Gujjar Nullah | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

“A single-room accommodation costs between 7,000 to 15,000 rupees [a month],” he says. He adds that a two-room residence can cost between 12,000 and 20,000 rupees, and a three-room home between 20,000 to 28,000 rupees. The exception is Surjani Town, where it is possible to find a three-room home for 13,000 rupees a month.

“Of course, not everyone here can even afford that,” Asghar says, adding that he fears that the helpless youth might turn to crime to make ends meet. “They see two different kinds of law,” he says, “one for the rich and another for the poor. Now they either fight back and question [the system] or commit suicide.”

Asghar has been questioning the system for many years himself and has faced the consequences.

He has been locked up by the police thrice now. The first time was during Ramazan, when Asghar was “making noise” and challenging the people “threatening to take away the roofs over our heads.” He was locked up in the Gulberg Police station for about seven hours.

Most recently, he was arrested at a protest near Bilawal House earlier this week. “I completed my hat-trick of arrests on Monday,” Asghar says. He says the affectees and protesters had shown up thinking that Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari would “listen to our pleas and understand our pain.”

Instead, says the activist, they were manhandled, beaten up and arrested for raising their voices. “Even the young activists from the Karachi Bachao Tehreek, who had joined us, were arrested and detained,” he tells Eos.

Asghar says the police told them this is no place to hold a demonstration. “[We were told that] if we wanted to protest, we could do it at the Karachi Press Club, but not here,” he says.

June saw multiple such protests that caught the attention of the media and social media. The people losing their homes have no choice but to stand in the sweltering heat, protesting what they see as unfair treatment. They will continue to knock on every door and stand in protest, be it outside the courts, press clubs or political party head offices.

After all, thousands of Karachi’s residents are being impacted. Asghar says that people of several different ethnicities live by the Gujjar Nullah, which has some 32 colonies. “It is a very big place,” he says. “You find Urdu-speaking families from New Karachi to Shafiq Morrh. From Shafiq Morrh to Cafe Pyala you have the Brohi Baloch. From Cafe Pyala to Landikotal Chowrangi you have the Pakhtuns, the Rajputs, the Kashmiris and the Punjabis. And from Landikotal Chowrangi to the Ziauddin Hospital there are the Serais, the Bengalis and the Burmese.”

EVICTIONS AND DISPLACEMENT

History is repeating itself.

“We have been seeing evictions and displacement in Karachi since the 1950s,” says Dr Nausheen Hafeeza Anwar, a professor at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), and the director of Karachi Urban Labs — ‘a collaborative experiment in critical urban thinking’.

"But the heavy displacement started in the late 1990s to early 2000s, mostly in the time of [Jamaat-i-Islami] Mayor Naimatullah Khan. That’s when the city government received funds for the upgradation of the roads, etc,” she says. She points out that the Lyari Expressway also displaced 80,000 individuals, and only 30,000 could be resettled. Only 33 percent of the affectees got compensated. And the compensation money — 50,000 rupees — turned out to be so little that most of it was used up by the families for transportation and shifting to Taiser Town, where most found accommodation.

“Now those evicted from Gujjar Nullah are being given 90,000 rupees cheques, which is a joke,” Dr Anwar says. “And as it is, there were two to three families living in a unit. So which family gets the money?”

These supposed ‘encroachers’ were first allowed to settle in these areas and are now being removed. “How can they be illegal occupants when they happen to be registered voters, when they pay utility bills?” questions Dr Anwar. “They were permitted in the beginning to settle wherever they could, as it was convenient for the government, which was really responsible for providing them with adequate housing at the time.”

Dr Anwar points out that when there is talk of ‘nullah cleaning’ or any kind of development work, it is easy to remove the poor and vulnerable class. “That is also what happened during the KCR [Karachi Circular Railway] evictions and demolitions. Those people are still sitting there under the open sky, waiting to be resettled,” she says.

Many argue that, nearly a year after the urban flooding last year, the government has done precious little to be ready should such showers return this monsoon season. According to some planners, the problem is actually at the mouth of the drains. But these have not been touched because they fall in posh areas like the Defence Housing Authority (DHA).

“How can they be illegal occupants when they happen to be registered voters, when they pay utility bills?” questions Dr Anwar.

Dr Anwar says that it is “much more convenient” to destroy poor people’s homes than to sit and plan properly.

She points out that when the Lyari Expressway was constructed, there was the City District Government Karachi, which at least had a resettlement plan (although this too fell short and could help only a fraction of the people). “But this government has no plan about what to do or where to resettle the KCR evicted or the nullah evicted, as tensions between the federal government and the provincial government increase,” she says.

“So we now have some 50,000 people displaced due to the nullah evictions,” she says. “The people had stay orders but the Supreme Court cancelled them and the bulldozers arrived ... The displaced have to go searching themselves for accommodations as families are destroyed. For them, it starts with the threat of displacement, and the mental tension increases during the period of waiting — which is also a form of violence.”

Maria Yaqub (left) with her elder sister Sonia Yaqub (middle) and another affectee Zara Khan | Courtesy Maria Yaqub
Maria Yaqub (left) with her elder sister Sonia Yaqub (middle) and another affectee Zara Khan | Courtesy Maria Yaqub

“So evictions and displacement are part of Karachi’s history,” she says. “This poor and vulnerable class will be targeted again and again, until the government thinks about planning properly for the poor and giving them affordable housing.”

Dr Anwar points out how having political backing, which the nullah affectees lack, can turn things around in this city. She says that bulldozers had also arrived at Jamshed Quarters and Federal Quarters, but those people had such social capital that no one could touch them. “Now no one is talking about demolishing them,” she says.

The Manzoor Colony Nullah, more commonly referred to as the Mehmoodabad Nullah, is another example of the impact supposed political backing can have. As Arif Hasan wrote, the number of planned demolitions along the nullah went from 1,205 to 56. “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,” he wrote. He added that the Gujjar and Orangi nullahs are in PTI constituencies, and the PTI, according to locals, did not intervene on their behalf.

“Meanwhile, here homes have been demolished, most of the rubble has been cleared and road rollers are paving ways, but the cleaning of the nullahs has still not started,” Dr Anwar says. “Perhaps, there is a density angle around these nullahs, along with basic sanitation issues. But, one must also not forget that the area around Gujjar Nullah and Mehmoodabad is prime land.”

GROUND REALITIES

According to Muhammad Sirajuddin of the Technical Training Resource Centre, which has taken pains in carrying out surveys along several nullahs, there are very few areas where there is any dense settlement that actually hinders the drains’ flow.

“We wanted to see if people on the nullahs are actually the cause of urban flooding, so we started carrying out on ground surveys which are bringing up different findings,” he says.

He gives the example of the Manzoor Colony Nullah. Sirajuddin, who was trained by late urban planner and researcher Perween Rahman, first explains the way the water flows through the nullah.

The nullah receives flow from Shahrah-i-Faisal, Shahrah-i-Quaideen, Shaheed-i-Millat Road, Tipu Sultan Road and Korangi Road. There are some 34 settlements around the nullah, and all the water from these areas goes through DHA Phase 7 to the Gizri Creek, from where it, finally, flows out to the sea. Coming back to the city side, from Shahrah-i-Quaideen, Kashmir Road, etc, the water flows from Nursery to PECHS Block-6 and to Mehmoodabad.

“But this couldn’t happen rapidly last year and we found the Nursery area under five feet of water,” says Sirajuddin. “The real cause of this was the Shahrah-i-Quaideen to Shahrah-i-Faisal flyover, which has its basement and pillars built over the nullah,” he points out.

“It was a 15-feet-wide drain, but now it is three-feet-wide, thanks to the pillars and basement there,” he adds.

This wasn’t all. Further research showed that two of the three pipes that cross Shahrah-i-Faisal, and carry drain water had choked. According to Sirajuddin’s research, negligence by the contractor and a lack of cleaning of the pipes greatly contributed to the flooding in the Nursery area.

He says the Gujjar Nullah has more issues than the Manzoor Colony Nullah. Sirajuddin and his team have spoken to some old settlers who say they remember clean water flowing in the drain, and claim that they would see fish in these waters during the 1960s.

According to the team’s initial surveys and research, industrial areas have been dumping solid factory waste in the drain, changing its dynamics. “The industry is also responsible for redirecting the nullah,” Sirajuddin says. “They have changed its direction to suit [their needs].

“Sadly, these findings don’t show up in drone surveys,” says Sirajuddin. “Ground realities are quite different from what is seen from the air,” he says, pointing out the importance of speaking to the people living in these areas.

Sirajuddin says that they have also found that there is eight to 10 feet of silt in the nullahs. “But the government here is just hiding its incompetence in not cleaning the drains,” he says, adding that the cleaning should’ve been the first step towards addressing the problem, not bulldozing people’s homes.

FAIR COMPENSATION

“As far as the Sindh Government was concerned,” Sindh Minister Saeed Ghani tells Eos, “we had wanted a one-time payment for all the affectees, which was to be from 25 lakh rupees to 30 lakh rupees. But the federal government did not agree to that, as it okayed a 15,000 rupees rent per month for six months for the first row of people living by the drains.”

“They were thinking that these people can live on this rent for six months, before being relocated to the Prime Minister’s [Naya] Pakistan Housing Scheme on a priority basis. I was immediately concerned, because who knows when those apartments in the PM’s scheme would be constructed,” he says.

“If we look at the Mehmoodabad Nullah affectees,” he says, “there may have been a lot of noise there but, after the demolition work, which was not too much, the extra construction by the people was removed and their structures were no longer in the way, as they built new front walls and that was it.

“With Gujjar Nullah, there are far more affectees and a bigger problem,” he admits, adding that things were “somewhat in control” when the residents had gotten a stay order from the Sindh High Court. But following the cancellation of the stay order by the Supreme Court, “the problem has gotten out of hand.”

The federal and Sindh governments seldom see eye to eye on most matters. To address this, a coordination committee was formed last year to solve Karachi’s issues. Unsurprisingly though, the committee has seen limited success.

“At first, I was made to head it, but I reminded [them] that I was only a provincial minister and Sindh has the smaller role in the work, while the federal government had the upper hand,” says Ghani, who is now a member of the coordination committee. “Then Aminul Haque [of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement], who was a member in the committee, was asked to head it, but he wanted to pull out altogether. It was not my or the provincial government’s say or mandate [to decide] who to bring in or throw out of the committee.”

“Federal Minister Asad Umar is [on the committee] as well, but he has not met the affectees directly, so he does not have a clear vision of their issues,” says Ghani. “As far as I and Aminul Haque are concerned, we are still [in favour of] full compensation [for] the affectees, which the federal government has turned down.”

LOST HOMES

As politicians shift blame, the affectees find themselves with limited options.

Maria, who is now living with her family in a small place with a high rent, says that the affectees feel like the parcel in a game of passing the parcel. “The federal government dumps our responsibility on the provincial government and the latter pushes our fate back into the hands of the former,” she says. “But still, we are a bone stuck in the provincial government’s throat, [and so] it continues to give statements to calm us down while nothing happens in our favour.

“The coronavirus and its adverse effects on our household earnings had already broken our backs,” says Maria. “Whatever was left, this strange drive, to clear ‘encroachments’, snatched away from us. Now we cannot even think of having a place of our own. We don’t even have enough to eat.”

Maria says that she passes by the place where her old family home once stood almost daily.

“I’m unable to come to terms with all this. I have tried, but I cannot forget our home,” she says. “I think about my parents’ lost picture, and my books and other household items, which we left behind while rushing out, buried somewhere deep under the muddy road that is being constructed there.

“The nullah water is black as usual with trash floating over it,” she says. “It stinks like it always has, but the machines there are busier — demolishing structures and constructing roads, rather than in cleaning the nullah.”


CORRECTION

A quote by Dr Nausheen H. Anwar has been modified from the original printed version to clarify that the heavy displacement of people began in the late 1990s to early 2000s, mostly in the time of Mayor Naimatullah Khan. The earlier version of the quote had implied that Khan was mayor in the 1990s, which is inaccurate. Mr Khan was mayor from 2001-2005.


The writer is a member of staff. She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 27th, 2021

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