Not for the poor

Published January 29, 2022
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.

JAN 25 was a day of setbacks for the PTI government. The day ended with news of the Lahore High Court scrapping the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project. Perhaps, it’s time a red flag is raised over how the government goes about doing its job. And what can better explain it than the RUDP?

Spread over 100,000 acres, the project was promoted as the “world’s largest riverfront modern city” near Lahore. Prime Minister Imran Khan felt “great excitement” in laying the stone of the “Ravi City, one of the biggest mega projects we have launched in our history”, he said in August 2020.

But earlier this week, the Lahore High Court declared that several provisions of the Ravi Urban Development Authority (RUDA) Act, 2020, were unconstitutional. It said that the acquisition of the land was in violation of the fundamental rights of citizens and that the project was initiated without a master plan. The decision was in response to multiple petitions filed by farmers, landowners and developers.

Environment experts and human rights activists had held that by developing a new city on the riverfront, the government was prioritising the demands of the moneyed class that already had access to the fast-developing, lucrative real estate market and not for the low or lower middle class where housing demand is high but investing capacity is lowest.

The HRCP initiated a civil society consultation a year ago to explore the social, legal and environmental aspects of the project. The findings published in Boon for Business … Bane for farmers? The Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project — An HRCP Fact-Finding Report concluded that among all other violations in the environment assessment, land acquisitions and farmer’s concerns, the project in the garb of providing affordable housing to the needy would render poor farmers and their families homeless.

Large projects don’t equate to basic housing.

While assessing the politics of the project, academic Ali Usman Qasmi contended that RUDP was not aimed at resolving the country’s severe housing crisis. Instead, he asserted in the report, “it represented a typical speculative real estate venture where the approach was to take an abstract space and commodify it for commercial purposes”.

So, what was driving the project: a resolve to solve the problem of housing or promoting the PTI so it could gain votes?

Realising the need for housing, the government had committed to building five million low-cost housing units across Pakistan for the underprivileged. In Punjab, Chief Minister Usman Buzdar announced the identification of 133 sites in 35 districts of Punjab for the prime minister’s affordable housing scheme in May 2021. He said that 54 locations for the Punjab Peri-Urban Low-Cost Housing Scheme, jointly executed by the Punjab government and the Naya Pakistan Housing and Development Authority, had been chosen for the first phase of the project.

However, the development in the sector has been insignificant. “The Punjab government has been attempting to pursue this target through a variety of means — creating new ‘affordable housing’ by-laws, offering private developers speedier project approvals and incentives, introducing new types of housing loans with lower interest rates,” explains urban planner Fizzah Sajjad.

Yet, she adds, it remains unclear how many new housing units have actually been built or financed through these policies. “This data should be made public and shared by relevant authorities. What is clear, however, is that we are nowhere close to achieving the original targets set by the government, and land prices have escalated over the past two years, making it even more difficult for households to access low-cost housing options.”

The Punjab government is in consultation with the World Bank to facilitate the $200m Affordable Housing Programme. The expected approval date is March or April. The bank will extend policy support in strengthening housing institutions and systems, and will help enhance the quality and quantity of affordable housing. It will promote private sector participation in affordable housing provision through infrastructure financing. It will also be promoting livability and sustainability of housing through climate-resilient and resource-efficient housing and infrastructure.

The programme pledges to minimise the risk of resettlement or displacement by financing only the housing schemes developed on unoccupied public or private land to prevent evictions and displacement.

It’s not exactly news that the state is not building enough homes for the less privileged. Pakistan’s housing shortage, according to the World Bank, is estimated at 10m units. Each year, the private sector only delivers 300,000 to 400,000 formal housing units in mainly urban Pakistan, compared to the 700,000 new households formed. Any further delay will impact the project cost and unit sale price.

The PTI government must act fast before its own house crumbles.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.

alefiath@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2022

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