AS palace intrigue around the person of Shahbaz Gill takes centre stage, the combination of gruelling economic hardship and monsoon rains continue to suck the life out of millions of working people across the country.
Yet another increase in petrol prices has garnered some attention — at least in part because of the fissures it has exposed within the ruling PML-N — but less well advertised are stealthy government ordinances that pave the way for the fire sale of public assets. Meanwhile, having backed down in the face of pressure from the trader-merchant community, the regime is pondering ‘relief’ for even bigger fish, most notably the real estate and construction sectors.
Perhaps our economic managers should pause and take note of the images which illuminate enormous monsoon-induced flooding in and around Bahria Town on the Karachi-Hyderabad highway. Other elite gated housing communities have been quickly inundated by rains in the recent past too; some in Karachi are perpetually subject to flooding because they are built recklessly on reclaimed land off the coast.
Such episodes are evidence enough that these schemes should actually be called gated disasters — after all, even the highest class brackets are not immune to the fallouts of what continues to uncritically be called ‘development’. But it is the outside of these gated communities that one uncovers the full scale of the calamity — a man-made disaster that is reproduced time and again due to the refusal of our planners, rulers and profiteers to pay attention to the increasingly urgent warnings that nature is offering us.
Such housing schemes are a scandalous form of class warfare.
Indigenous peoples in areas like Malir have been crying hoarse for years about dispossession from their historical abodes as property developers run riot in cahoots with uniformed and civilian personnel of the state. But instead of paying them heed, new ‘development’ projects like the Malir Expressway in Karachi are designed and executed with little concern about natural drainage flows and other ecological effects.
Meanwhile, in Quetta, in recent days cut off from the rest of the country due to incessant flooding on major thoroughfares, a new and sprawling Defence Housing Authority (DHA) is advancing through the usual thuggish means at the rate of knots. On the one hand, there is no concern for how this ‘development’ could potentially exacerbate flash flooding like that which has been witnessed over the past few weeks. On the other hand, the scheme can be expected to put even more pressure on the city’s scarce drinking water sources.
Adjacent to Quetta, on the other side of the Koh-i-Suleiman range, hill torrents that have historically supported agriculture in the Seraiki belt are now taking the form of devastating flash floods. Here too the immediate cause may be deluges of water caused by monsoon rains, but the deeper cause is unregulated ‘development’ in the form of roads, property developments and deforestation.
If the point is not already clear, let me be more blunt: the scenes we are witnessing are only going to be replicated in more and more parts of the country as the imperatives of profiteers, and the engineers/planners that facilitate them, take precedence over the needs of both working masses and the natural environment at large.
Read: The new landlords
Indeed, even if one ignores the long-term effects of gated housing schemes on already dilapidated ecosystems, they are a scandalous form of class warfare in a country where large numbers of working people, especially in metropolitan areas, live in squatter settlements and slums. What we should be planning are schemes that guarantee the housing, educational, health and recreational needs of this huge mass of the population, especially in the face of a virtually never-ending flow of rural migrants towards urban centres.
But this requires political will, the absence of which is conspicuous across all factions of Pakistan’s ruling bloc, military and civil, the PTI and PDM/PPP.
To return to Bahria Town, all major players are implicated in the racket. Remember the reported £140 million (of the £190m settlement with Malik Riaz) that the British government repatriated to the public exchequer here? It is now widely said that while this money came back to Pakistan, it was deposited in such a way as to facilitate Malik Riaz’s partial clearance of a fine levied by the Supreme Court on account of the blatantly illegal land-grabbing practices through which Bahria Town came into existence.
The money trail and the brutalising dispossession of indigenous villagers shows our entire ruling class to be guilty.
So here we are, stuck in a dramatic race to the bottom. On the one hand, to borrow the eminent thinker Mike Davis’ term, is the intensifying immiseration of working masses, particularly those from ethnic peripheries, in a Planet of Slums. On the other hand is a ruling class merry-go-round to keep us all numb to the real crises.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2022