Policy debate: How the Sindh govt is rendering thousands homeless in the name of development

Only after demolishing 6,600 homes and evicting 66,500 people, did the Government of Sindh realise it needed a rehabilitation and resettlement policy.
Published March 27, 2023

Around this time two years ago, Ester Rose looked on helplessly as a jackhammer excavator demolished her home. It was Palm Sunday — the day before Easter, one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar.

When the jackhammer was done, hardly 30 per cent of her home, where she had lived for decades, remained — a single room that had only three walls and was completely open from one side. Around her, many of the homes in Kausar Niazi Colony along the Gujjar Nullah shared a similar fate.

Ester was told her home had to be demolished because it was constructed on land marked for a nullah [a watercourse] — in legal parlance, the home was built on encroached land, said the authorities. What she wasn’t told was where she was now supposed to find shelter for herself and her children.

In fact, no one had thought of that, it later transpired. Only after demolishing 6,600 homes and evicting 66,500 people, did the Government of Sindh (GoS) realise it needed a rehabilitation and resettlement policy.

Anti-encroachment drive and the pause

In 2020, Karachi received 484 millimetres (mm) of rain — the highest rainfall recorded in the last 90 years. The rain left the city in a shambles and inoperable for the next few weeks, with the clogged nullahs — the stormwater drains supposed to transport the water from one end of the city all the way to the sea — cited as the primary reason for the urban flooding.

Weeks later, the provincial government reached out to the World Bank (WB), which in turn agreed to put up $100 million for what came to be known as the Solid Waste Emergency and Efficiency Project (SWEEP). The goal was to improve solid waste management in the city, which also meant cleaning the debris from the storm water drains as well as clearing any illegal structures in their path.

At the same time, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, on Aug 12, 2020, ordered the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to assist the provincial government in cleaning the nullahs. Thus began the story of horror and agony for the residents of Gujjar Nullah and Orangi Nullah.

Soon after, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation’s senior director for land (anti-encroachment) issued a letter, titled “cancellation of leases of plots coming in alignment of Gujjar Nullah and Orangi Nullah and other nullahs in Karachi city.” What is ironic is that the order itself was illegal, but it was ultimately used to cancel all leases, even the ones issued decades ago. The letter also did not take into account the actual width of the nullah, and the authorities ended up demolishing homes that didn’t necessarily impede the flow of water.

Within nine days of the letter being issued, the Central district’s deputy commissioner issued a notice, informing the residents that the demolitions would start the next day at 7am. What each of these officials, as well as others involved in the ‘anti-encroachment operations’ failed to appreciate was that while the apex court had ordered the nullahs to be cleared of encroachments, it had also ordered the provincial government to rehabilitate the people who would be impacted by these operations.

 Begum Rasheeda and her family of 10 live in a single-room makeshift tent alongside the nullah.
Begum Rasheeda and her family of 10 live in a single-room makeshift tent alongside the nullah.

“The Government of Sindh shall provide all the necessary assistance and support to the NDMA for rehabilitation of the people, the Government of Sindh shall ensure provision of all necessary facilities which is required for rehabilitation of a civilised society,” reads the court order, in case you were wondering.

With no rehabilitation policy in place, the affectees — many of whom held leases for the land they occupied — knocked on the apex court’s doors once again. Again, the supreme court ordered the government to rehabilitate them. But it was already too late, with the World Bank suspending the funding for the project, ostensibly to avoid being embroiled in a controversy where thousands of people were being rendered homeless.

Policy discussions

It was at this point that the Sindh government rushed to make a rehabilitation policy, immediately constituting a committee chaired by the Karachi Commissioner.

The committee met for the first time on April 7, 2021, when the commissioner made two sub-committees. One was headed by Amber Alibhai, general secretary of non-governmental organisation Shehri-CBE, while the other was headed by then KMC Municipal Commissioner Afzal Zaidi.

“When the anti-encroachment drives of 2020 took place, the government realised that there should be a policy,” said Zaidi, adding that the policy was being drafted to serve as a roadmap for the future, whenever there was displacement due to a development project.

Two years on, after multiple consultation sessions, the policy draft is still being debated upon. Meanwhile, anti-encroachment operations are in full swing and departments are preparing and sending out more notices to more people who will have to be evicted to make way for ‘development projects’.

As for the other sub-committee, it lost its chairperson within a few months. “I resigned as the chairperson of the sub-committee on Nov 10, 2021, because the commissioner’s office was not engaging us in a meaningful way,” Alibhai told Dawn.com.

The fault in our laws

When the state wants to acquire private land, it looks to the archaic Land Acquisition Act (LAA), 1894, enacted by the British some 119 years ago. The law’s primary purpose was to facilitate the government’s acquisition of privately held land for public purposes and for private companies — by paying a small compensation fee.

Unfortunately, even after all these years, the law still prevails in Pakistan. The policy draft, currently in circulation, acknowledges the faults in the law, but does little to address them.

“The Land Acquisition Act, 1894, remains a remnant of the colonial times that should have been timely amended to cater to our evolving socio-economic circumstances,” the policy draft states. “Therefore, such an overhaul becomes necessary in the light of the shortcomings of the current scheme of land acquisition with respect to compensation and matters incidental thereto.”

Alibhai explained that the law essentially opened up several avenues for the government to take over any land by paying peanuts. “Under the current law, public purpose can be anything such as an educational institution, a housing scheme, a healthcare facility or slum clearance. It allows the government to acquire any land for a private company without being questioned,” she said.

Land acquisition for the Ravi Urban Development Authority (RUDA) project is one such case where the law was allegedly misused to take land from a local community — under the guise of development — to benefit a select few.

According to lawyer Abdul Rafay, “the definition of public purpose in LAA is vague, because of which the government can acquire a private person’s land for a private company, without being questioned.” Rafay is part of the Alternative Law Collective, a research, litigation and advocacy group comprising lawyers and academics.

Per the procedure laid out by the law, the government is required to listen to and take into consideration the objections of the people inhabiting the land. In most cases, however, Clause 17 of the LAA [special power in cases of urgency] is invoked, enabling the government to take over any land without listening to any objections of the local people.

The policy draft, being considered in Sindh at the moment, does not really address any of the issues arising out of the application of the LAA. It only makes fleeting references of avoiding, minimising and exploring alternative options — where feasible. It also introduces no standard, criteria or mechanisms for accessing the feasibility in practice, particularly when it comes to the question of taking land for public purposes and under the urgency clause of the LAA.

“The LAA, 1894, needs to be repealed and until that happens, the resettlement policy will hold no value,” Rafay added.

Ambiguities and absence of legal cover

Another point of contention with the policy draft is its vague wording. “The policy [draft] takes reference from multiple laws but does not define which sections or clauses of the aforesaid laws would be used,” said Alibhai, adding that this ambiguity could be used for mala fide purposes.

 Children look out from a partially demolished home in Kausar Niazi Colony. — Photo by author
Children look out from a partially demolished home in Kausar Niazi Colony. — Photo by author

What is perhaps the biggest point of contention is that the policy has no legal cover, with the provincial government justifying that “the policy does not need explicit legal cover through legislation since it clarifies principles enshrined in other laws …”

According to environmental lawyer, Advocate Zubair Abro, if the policy has no legal cover, resettlement and rehabilitation will not be a right of the people. It needs to be made a right or the displaced will be left at the mercy of the government. “If there is no legal cover, we cannot challenge it in writ petition because it is just a policy, and cannot approach any court for enforcement because it is unenforceable,” said Abro.

Citing the example of Thar Coal, he said that despite having a resettlement policy framework, only a few affectees have had recourse to the entitlements, while the majority have been left unprotected. “Thar Coal Block 2 was developed in 2016 but to date, we have seen little to no compensation,” said Leela Ram, an affectee of Thar Coal. The compensations have been denied, restricted, delayed, incomplete and given favourably.

If the policy is turned into a law, there will also be a mechanism under which each government official and department will be given a responsibility. Those who do not fulfil their responsibility or discriminate can be held accountable.

The Sindh government, however, denies there is any mala fide intention to any of this. “If we wait for amendments to the law, it’s going to take time,” said Faisal Ahmed Uqaili, Secretary to Government of Sindh, Planning and Development Department. “The laws that are relevant to this policy should be amended but the deliberations to those amendments will come from the implementation of this policy on the ground … the policy will be the first stepping stone,” he added.

Unequal treatment

According to experts, the current policy draft is also discriminatory towards the affectees.

It states: “While resettlement is the preferred approach from a sustainable development perspective, cash compensation based on entitlements, can also be provided if preferred by eligible persons and/or required by government due to the contextual reasons (non-availability of resettlement sites and/or land and/or resources for developing new resettlement sites that are or can easily be connected to sources of livelihood and provided requisite services). The decision to provide resettlement or cash compensation may be done on a case-by-case basis.”

While giving the affectee the right to choose the compensation they desire is vital, giving the government discretionary power to make that decision without defining ‘guidelines’ would lead to discrimination, say experts. It would be an injustice to those who get the less desirable remedy.

“The entitlement matrix is incomplete and flawed … it fails to take the current scenario on the ground into context,” said Syed Zainuddin, director of Alternative Law Collective. He said that the on-ground issues are complex. Generations have been born and lived in places, which the government wants to acquire, in the last several decades. The people have their own customs, history, traditions, way of life and livelihood practices.

Zainuddin added that the Sindh government had never shown any interest in getting the people the required documentation. “Today, when they have interest in the land, they’re asking them to prove their ownership based on legal documentation?” he questioned rhetorically.

Based on those papers, the government is making distinctions between which affectee deserves what type of compensation, he said. The title-holder and the non-title holder both are losing their economic and social status — in equal measure. “How will they do justice when they only rehabilitate one of them? The value of any rehabilitation and resettlement policy is restitution of the people. This policy is failing to achieve that,” he stressed.

Generational customs and communal spaces

The entitlement matrix too does not take into account the customary practices of the areas. “Each region has a distinct socio-economic reality in which people have lived for centuries. They had their own set of rules and regulations,” said Rafay.

For instance, the agricultural land owners, who have title deeds, will be given land for land. It, however, fails to incorporate the landless farmers, who are in the majority and will be affected the most.

In rural Sindh, the ‘makata’ practice is followed in which the wadera (landowner) gives the landless farmer the land for the season or the year. The tenant lives on the land and cultivates it. The profit from the yields is then shared by both the land owner and the tenant.

Rafay explained that the matrix states the tenant will be given ‘cash compensation of a value proportional to the remaining tenancy period or three months’. “This is gross injustice,” he said. “What will he do after three months?”

What the policy draft fails to appreciate is that the pre-displacement status includes not just tangible private assets, but also communal resources and aspects of cultural life and livelihood practices.

“Where displacement and/or social and economic impacts are unavoidable, to provide adequate compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation assistance and support to affected people and communities can at least maintain their pre-displacement socio-economic status or improve their overall well-being due to new opportunities made available to them,” reads the draft.

“In Thar, there was a dedicated piece of land which was called ‘gaon-char’, on which the entire community’s livestock would graze,” said Noor Bajeer, CEO of Civil Society Support Programme. “If you take that away, you’re taking away an essential resource of the community.”

“Similarly, there are many other communal resources that need to be taken into account when rehabilitating and resettling the people … the current policy is failing to do so.”

Haste makes waste

While many point to the contradictions in the draft, some like architect Arif Hasan believe it is simply hogwash. “It seems to me that the policy is being made so that the government can keep taking loans from the World Bank,” he told Dawn.com.

Hasan explained that all policies have a background paper, which is very detailed and made after consultations from all provinces, districts and communities. It takes years to conduct those consultations and reach a consensus with the community.

According to Uqaili, the Sindh government has undertaken all efforts to consult as many stakeholders as possible. He explained that the policy draft has been uploaded on the respective websites of three different government departments. It has also been translated and advertised in regional languages, as well as Urdu, and the recommendations received are being compiled.

Moreover, said Uqaili, there have been multiple consultation sessions. “The civil society is even holding some consultation sessions to make their recommendations stronger,” he said, adding that once the policy was implemented, it could always be amended to fill the gaps.

Again, not everyone is convinced. “Each community that lives in the area has its own customs, cultures and history. Without taking all of this this into account, how can the government make a policy?” questioned Abira Ashfaq, a lawyer and activist affiliated with Karachi Bachao Tehreek (KBT), which describes itself as an “evolving and growing movement of demolition affected people and their allies in Karachi.

Bajeer agrees with Ashfaq, “the policy is being made in consultation with academics … the real beneficiaries of the policy are unaware of it,” he said. “The policy needs to be delayed, it cannot be hurried to fulfil the formalities of the donor agencies and banks. The policy is for all of Sindh and will rehabilitate people who are affected by all forms of displacement, be it climate change, anti-encroachment or development projects. It needs more deliberation.”

Again, Uqaili disputed this notion. “The policy is not for flood affectees … the government has different projects and provisions for them. It is also not for the displacement of affectees displaced before the effective date of policy implementation,” he said.

Homeless and helpless

Even as the policy debate continues, authorities have continued to demolish more homes, without any consideration for alternative arrangements. According to Karachi Urban Lab (KUL) — a research centre focusing on urbanisation and urban planning in the Global South — major infrastructure projects and anti-encroachment drives between Jan 2019 and Jan 2023 have resulted in the displacement of at least 14,900 families.

This means that almost 119,000 people have been impacted across Karachi in the last three years alone, said Muhammad Toheed, associate director at the KUL. The figure is based on a modest estimate of average eight persons per household, despite the fact that most of the anti-encroachment operations were carried out in high-density areas, where the family size often varies between eight and 10 persons.

 Map shows eviction hotspots in Karachi from Jan 2019 to Jan 2023. — Courtesy Karachi Urban Lab
Map shows eviction hotspots in Karachi from Jan 2019 to Jan 2023. — Courtesy Karachi Urban Lab

 Map shows eviction hotspots in Karachi between 2109-202. — Courtesy Karachi Urban Lab
Map shows eviction hotspots in Karachi between 2109-202. — Courtesy Karachi Urban Lab

At the time of the demolition exercise, the KMC announced that each household impacted by the drive would be given four instalments of Rs90,000 each. The money was to be used by the families to pay rent for the next two years.

“More than 600 families have not received any compensation … others have only received a part of the payments,” lamented Ashfaq.

According to Zaidi, who was in-charge of the operation, the list of affectees has been updated from time to time as new information surfaced. “The NED (university) conducted an aerial survey, which was problematic, but the deputy commissioners later conducted a door-to-door survey. The lists have been updated from time to time,” Zaidi told Dawn.com.

“The cheques are ready … the affectees just have to show their CNIC and they would be handed the cheque,” he added.

This methodology too doesn’t consider the ground realities for the families living in the affected areas. “We have received only two cheques in the past two years … it was nowhere near enough,” said 40-year-old Shazia Zafar, a housewife.

She explained that their house was a two-storey structure, co-inhabited by three families. They were only compensated for one family.

“The rent prices have inflated after the demolition drive, the landlords are demanding Rs16,000 per month for a single-room house and that too without gas and water supply,” she said. Unable to afford the rent, the family of nine has resorted to living in their old home, which now has shaky walls and an exposed roof.

No funds to spare

In the 2022-23 budget, the Sindh government allocated Rs9.42bn for the “resettlement of affectees of Gujjar, Mehmoodabad and Orangi Nullahs”. More recently, however, the chief minister has expressed concern that it won’t be possible for the provincial government to “provide such a huge amount under present economic conditions”.

“Other options need to be explored,” the chief minister was quoted as saying in the meeting of the Provincial Coordination and Implementation Committee held on Feb 23.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground has only worsened. The monsoon rains of 2022 brought more misery for the people, who are still living near the site of demolitions. “I have lived in this house all my life … the water from the rain never came inside,” exclaimed 65-year-old Elizibeth Younus. “This year, rainwater accumulated inside my house and destroyed everything. All this demolition made the walls of my house weak,” she lamented.

 A makeshift kitchen in a half-demolished house in Kausar Niazi, Gujjar Nullah. — All photos by author
A makeshift kitchen in a half-demolished house in Kausar Niazi, Gujjar Nullah. — All photos by author

During the anti-encroachment drives, the fences along the nullah were also removed. The exposed nullahs are unsafe and have caused many accidents — in some cases, children have fallen into the waterway and drowned.

“My son had gone with his cousin to buy milk. On the way, he fell into the nullah … I don’t know if he was pushed or he fell. I just know he is never coming back,” said Uzma Faisal, a resident of Kausar Niazi Colony, who lost her only son, seven-year-old Milakya. “The government, with their demolitions and excavations, deepened the nullahs but built no fence along them [to prevent people from falling in].”

Despite the conditions, residents are coming back to the area two years after the demolitions. “It was very difficult and costly for my grandsons to commute from Lyari to their workplace,” said Seein Sardar, who had migrated to Lyari, along with his son and two grandsons, after their home was demolished in 2021.

“We will pay Rs16,000 in rent. It would be cheaper than the around Rs20,000 my grandsons are currently spending on transport,” he explained.

Rose’s family of seven, meanwhile, lives in one room — the only one with a roof. The kitchen is under the open sky, while the bathroom is a small enclosure surrounded by curtains at one end.

“Going to the washroom is difficult. I am always worried that the curtain will fly off,” said Rose, as she prepared a meal in the small kitchen.

For Rose and thousands like her, home is where family is — even is that’s a single room or a tent. They don’t expect much from the government — especially one that has snatched the roof from over their heads — or a policy that doesn’t apply to them anyways.

“In fact, even if the policy is implemented, it will only institutionalise land grabbing, leaving the people living on those lands vulnerable to displacement,” said Alibhai.

Header image: A general view of the Gujjar Nullah which now stands exposed after its walls were broken as part of the anti-encroachment drive. — Gif by author