ON Jan 22, Google commemorated Perween Rahman’s 65th birthday. It was a commendable way of recognising the life and work of the late director of Karachi’s Orangi Pilot Project, who was killed in 2013. One of Perween’s core goals was to seek decent, institutionalised access to land for housing the urban poor.
Land allotments here generally benefit the business elite, the politically influential, cohorts of government functionaries etc. Several land allocation and management decisions taken by the public agencies are unjust. For instance, Gutter Baghicha, a prized piece of amenity land in Karachi’s south-western fringes, was sub-divided and allotted to political favourites and cronies. This open space, after its inadequate utilisation as a sewage farm, has been coveted by real estate barons for long. Last month, the Supreme Court declared that the entire piece of land “must be retrieved as it is an amenity and meant for a park”.
Clandestine sub-divisions and marketing land along Karachi’s Northern Bypass is another grey area. Many court cases have ended with illegal land allotment under various administrations being recognised as such.
Administrative norms are geared towards powerful interest groups who succeed in obtaining land through opaque processes, away from the public radar. However, sometimes, desirable laws are accidentally promulgated! The Sindh Disposal of Urban Land Ordinance, 2002, ensured targeted land supply to the urban poor, based on the incremental housing development model of Khuda ki Basti. Since the ordinance did not go down well with various vested interests, the Sindh legislature repealed the law in 2006. It was argued that this law delayed the land allotment process. Urban planners saw it as step to do away with transparency in allotments.
Only the elite benefit from the allotment of land.
Land is regarded as a social asset that is placed under state control with a contract of trusteeship. Land allocation, allotment and pricing are done as per public needs. Technical merits and neutral procedures are key prerequisites. But these merits are undone by self-serving approaches.
Land is a finite resource. Sindh as a province had considerable reserves of state land which later fell within the limits of urban areas. Historically, this land, which was considered an asset and carefully utilised for residential, commercial, agricultural, recreational, industrial and other purposes at least in the large cities, changed and, instead of an asset, came to be viewed as a tradable commodity. This gave rise to the evolution of an entirely uncontrolled land market. Nascent market forces, rather than rational official choices made in the public interest, determined the utilisation and transaction of land. With no consideration for their social, ecological or long-term economic consequences, controversial land transactions continued unabated.
Karachi receives thousands of migrants each year. Most newcomers have few resources and wish to benefit from the economic and other opportunities the city offers. In the absence of legally valid options of land supply, they end up living in katchi abadis. The Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority Act, 1987, provides for upgrading notified katchi abadis. It is heartening to learn that Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari distributed lease documents to some slum dwellers in Larkana on Jan 25. It is hoped the same process will be extended to all urban locations in Sindh.
In fact, katchi abadi upgradation must be continuously done to uplift the quality of life for underprivileged communities. New types of changes are being experienced in the context of katchi abadis. The replacement of low-rise housing with informally developed high rises is very visible in settlements close to the city centre. For service delivery, one must pay increasing costs of water supplied through tankers. Electricity and gas prices are also rising for the poor. Whereas some believe the poor enjoy free services, the reality is that they pay far more than residents of planned neighbourhoods. But these transactions are done in an informal manner with little formal evidence to substantiate the claim.
For greater transparency, the government must take quick action. One, details of state-owned land parcels and reserves must be prepared and published for the public benefit. This will help reduce the surreptitious disposal of state land by officials. Two, an efficient land information system must be created and made accessible to the public. It must be continually adjusted, according to changes in land development. Three, the Sindh legislature must introduce a revised law to streamline the disposal of urban land. Without a legal framework, little benefit can be expected from other actions. Last, the sales of and changes in the usage of urban lands must conform to a development plan for the city which has the input of professional quarters. Without this, land scams will continue to haunt us.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2022