Illustration by Sarah Durrani


Court rulings against encroachments in Karachi provide a glimpse into how the judicial system impacts the lives of the economically disadvantaged.
Published June 4, 2023

In countries worldwide, the judiciary has an important role in deciding how a country is run, specifically with respect to how its most vulnerable, marginalised residents are treated and what kind of rights and facilities they have access to.

The judiciary’s role is supposed to be that of dispensing justice but, in a country like Pakistan, which is deeply marred by political influences of external actors (including the establishment), their role has been subject to controversy and a lack of trust. In this article, we will explore how the judiciary has impacted the development of Karachi through the lens of recent evictions of the city’s poor.

According to the older residents of katchi abadis [informal settlements], the judiciary has helped them in the past. Its judgments provided many of them with electricity and gas connections and also saved them from demolitions. But things have slowly changed over time, and they like to talk about the repercussions of this change.


The ex-mayor of Karachi, Naimatullah Khan, filed a case in 2010 before the High Court of Sindh, asking for the removal of hawkers, patharay daars [occupiers of public space], offices of political parties, etc. that were ‘illegally’ occupying public space.

Court rulings against encroachments in Saddar, along the Karachi Circular Railway and the city’s nullahs provide a glimpse into how the judicial system impacts the lives of the economically disadvantaged, through evictions and ill-conceived rehabilitation plans

In 2018, the court passed a judgment ordering the removal of all encroachments from the streets and public spaces. The matter was taken up by the Supreme Court the same year, which passed an order on October 26, asking the relevant authorities to cancel all leases, licenses and approvals on amenity plots and “encroachments”.

The next day, the Supreme Court ordered the removal of encroachments from Empress Market and its surrounding areas. The order stated that “this shall serve as a model for the purpose of curbing the general nuisance of encroachments in Karachi.”

The reason for saying this was, perhaps, that the Empress Market area has been one of the most congested areas of the city with thousands of hawkers around it though, in its immediate neighbourhood, there are a number of elite institutions as well. It has also been considered as the most difficult area in which to carry out an anti-encroachment operation, which has been tried several times before and has failed. For this reason, the Rangers — a paramilitary force — were asked by the court to help out in case of any law and order situation arising as a result of the demolition and removal process.

There were appeals against the Supreme Court orders but they were dismissed by the court. The Empress Market and the area around it was home to about 2,000 formal shops and 1,500 informal shops, most of whom were tenants of the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC). Following a few days of protest by the affectees, the demolitions were carried out in the early hours of November 11, 2018.

Two months later, in January 2019, because of widespread protests and the socioeconomic loss caused by the anti-encroachment drive, the advocate general requested the court to revisit its previous orders on humanitarian grounds. However, the Supreme Court maintained its original position.

The Supreme Court also ordered that the leased shops should be offered alternative space in other KMC properties, so that they can continue their businesses. However, these shops were far too few and far away from Empress Market. In addition, when the shopkeepers went to occupy those places, they discovered that they were already occupied and, in the few cases in which they were not, were in locations that were not conducive to doing any form of retailing. As such, the affected population did not make use of this offer As a result of the demolition process, 3,495 shops were removed from around Empress Market — of which, 1,300 were constructed officially in 1955-1956 for providing jobs and promoting commerce to the Partition’s refugee population. In Empress Market itself, 280 shops were part of its original plan of 1889. In 1954, their number was increased to 584. After the eviction of 2018 from the main market building, there are only 18 shops left.

On March 21, 2019, the Supreme Court issued an eviction notice to all households living along the circular railway. The number of these households was more than 4,000, of which 1,108 were demolished in May 2019. In addition, 12,000 vendors and small shopkeepers were also removed.

The scale of the demolition cannot be accurately calculated. The number of hawkers that lost their space is estimated to be between 4,000-9,000, including entertainers, local medicine sellers, animal performers, second-hand clothes’ vendors, etc. Even if we accept the figure of 4,000, then the loss to Karachi’s informal economy was: 4,000 hawkers multiplied by 5,000 rupees (per day) turnover into a 300 day year, which is equal to 6 billion rupees.

This does not include the supply chain, the manufacturing of items in LaluKhet [Liaquatabad] and Korangi which are sold at hawker stalls, and international imports of tea from Sri Lanka and Kenya, dry fruit from Afghanistan and Central Asia, eggs from the rest of Pakistan, and exotic animals from Africa, Singapore and Latin America.

 The Empress Market renovation is apparently a part of a larger gentrification plan for the area | Photos: White Star
The Empress Market renovation is apparently a part of a larger gentrification plan for the area | Photos: White Star

At a rough estimate, there are 150,000 hawkers in Karachi as a whole. If we take all of them into account, then Karachi’s hawker-related street economy value (minus supply and manufacturing chains) per year is 225 billion rupees.

A World Bank publication deals with the effect of evictions that have taken place on the affectees. Most of them were depressed. Many of them were in debt. They had problems running their households. And their greatest complaint was that they are unable to pay their children’s school fees, because of which their children (estimated at 30,000) are out of school.

Some also claim that they have had to beg for survival. Additionally, the High Court extended the area of operation of the evictions from Saddar to all of Karachi, with the result that an estimated 7,000 shops were demolished and 15,000 hawkers were dislocated.

The Karachi Circular Railway

However, this is not all. The Supreme Court of Pakistan also took suo moto cognisance of the encroachments on railway lands. In its judgment of November 27, 2011, it ordered the removal of all encroachments from them.

On March 21, 2019, it issued an eviction notice to all households living along the circular railway. The number of these households was more than 4,000, of which 1,108 were demolished in May 2019. In addition, 12,000 vendors and small shopkeepers were also removed.

In May 2019, the Supreme Court ordered the revival of the circular railway in 15 days, not realising that this was not possible because of infrastructure problems created by the under-construction Green Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The railway higher ups who attended the court hearings were also not aware of these impediments and promised to comply with the Supreme Court orders.

On May 23, 2019, the demolitions began. On June 12, 2019, water and electricity were disconnected from these households. Various estimates put the number of households in danger of evictions along the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) at 60,000.

 Demolition work that was carried out along the Gujjar Nullah led to the displacement of many
Demolition work that was carried out along the Gujjar Nullah led to the displacement of many

Here, it is necessary to note that a lot of formal sector construction exists along the KCR, which constitutes 72 percent of the total length of the railway track. These encroachments consist, among others, of various corporate sector companies, civic buildings and commercial plazas, including Siemens, Toyota Indus Motors, City High School, Awami Markaz, PAF Shaheen Housing Scheme, etc. None of this construction has been singled out for demolition, nor have notices been served on them.

On June 19, 2019, the demolition was stopped due to pressure from civil society organisations and certain political parties. It must be said that the Supreme Court also directed the Sindh Government and Pakistan Railways to rehabilitate the affectees in a decent way with all facilities, and that too, within a year. The affectees, however, have pointed out that their rehabilitation should have been a part of the demolition process, so that they would not have to bear the cost and distress of being homeless for a year.

Since the affectees had nowhere to go, many of them are still living on the demolished ruins of their homes, most without water and electricity. Again, as in the case of Saddar, they feel that their greatest loss has been the loss of schooling of their children and also that because of the demolition of their homes, their privacy has been grossly violated.

In cases of evictions, rehabilitation and changes in land use, the court should appoint a person or an academic institution that has knowledge of the city and its societal issues and the problem that the court is dealing with. If further research is required on the subject, then the terms of reference for it should be prepared jointly by the court, institution and representatives of the affectees.

Their incomes have fallen since their women cannot work and their men have lost many days and wages trying to fight against the evictions and trying to manage their repercussions. A Supreme Court directive to rehabilitate the affectees has not been complied with, in spite of four years elapsing.

The Question of Heritage

The Empress Market is considered an iconic heritage building and some architects and conservationists have been very concerned that the area around it has been congested and “degraded”. Perhaps, this is the reason that it has figured in a big way in the court judgements. However, there are also other heritage markets in Karachi but there has been no demolition there except in Lea Market, where a few shops were demolished and then the operation was stopped.

According to the real estate dealers in Saddar, the Empress Market renovation is a part of a larger gentrification plan of the area. Some stated that lots of buildings in Saddar would be replaced by up-market condominiums and Empress Market would serve them as an entertainment or cultural space.

In April 2018, the government plan for the area was circulated through a PowerPoint presentation, in which a proposal for the Empress Market to be turned into an up-market dining space was made. Earlier, proposals for it to be turned into an art gallery, museum or a mall for elite brands had also been made.

There seems to be an interest in using the Empress Market as a cultural space or as a ‘special market’. Many of the old hawkers and a number of new hawkers have reoccupied the streets around the market and have rediscovered their old customers. The state resisted this to begin with, but soon gave up. However, in the compound of the Empress Market and the market building itself, they and the old shopkeepers have not been allowed to return.

The state, so far, has not informed the public as to what it intends to do with the building. Occasionally, the evicted persons, hawkers and shopkeepers gather around the market and shout slogans saying that the market is theirs.

 Demolition work that was carried out along the Gujjar Nullah led to the displacement of many
Demolition work that was carried out along the Gujjar Nullah led to the displacement of many


“They (the youth) see two different kinds of law — one for the rich and another for the poor. Now they either fight back and question [the system] or commit suicide,” expressed Abid Asghar, a former resident of the Gujjar Nullah [storm water drain], while speaking to senior journalist Shazia Hasan nearly two years ago.

He had said this at a time when Karachi city had been fairly newly hit by mass demolitions and evictions along the Gujjar and Orangi Nullahs, which rendered tens of thousands of the city’s constantly growing population of working class people homeless. This was despite many of the affectees having leases for their houses, which were built out of a lifetime of sweat and sacrifices. One order by the Supreme Court and multiple generations’ worth of painstakingly accumulated capital, safety, and memories were turned into rubble forever.

Whenever it rains in Karachi, there is flooding, and the reason given for that is that the nullahs have been encroached upon, due to which floodwater cannot reach the outfalls. In 2020, there were exceptionally heavy rains, and almost all of Karachi was flooded. There was massive loss of property. As a result, there was much hype about the nullah encroachments being responsible for the flooding.

On August 12, 2020, the Supreme Court ordered the Sindh Government and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to remove encroachments “from along the Karachi nullahs and clean them within three months.” The Supreme Court was concerned because most of the city had been submerged under water and there was a breakdown of the city’s rainwater management system.

By identifying the houses along the nullahs as the cause of flooding, the blame for the disaster fell on the poor and even houses that were not within the floodplain of the nullahs were removed. The nullahs identified for removal of “encroachments” were the Gujjar, Orangi and Mahmoodabad Nullahs. In the case of the Mahmoodabad Nullah, demolitions were minimised because the MPAs of the area were from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), who took an active interest in preventing demolitions of their constituents’ houses.

To understand the scale of “encroachments” along the nullahs, a drone survey was commissioned and NED University was engaged to carry it out. The survey identified the houses but not the number of people living in them. In most of the houses, more than one family resided, so the number of households living in the properties identified could not be ascertained.

Thirty-feet roads were built along the Gujjar and Orangi Nullahs, for which houses had to be removed. As a result, the number of evictees more than doubled. Residents claim that these roads were built because they were ideal for future real estate construction. The Orangi Nullah connects two important points in Karachi, the RCD Highway and the Lyari Expressway — and, in the same manner, Gujjar Nullah connects the Northern Bypass with the Lyari Expressway.

As a result of the demolitions, 100,000 persons living in 12,000 houses were rendered shelterless, and the demolitions continued even through Eid and the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been argued that a World Bank project called SWEEP also paved the way for these evictions.

A compensation of 90,000 rupees to cover renting costs of six months was promised by the state for each affected household. This sum is ridiculously small and, given bureaucratic procedures, it was very difficult to access it. And then, given the fact that the number of affected households far exceeded the ones identified for compensation (based on the findings of the NED survey), most of them could not even apply for compensation.

In a Supreme Court order dated September 22, 2021, the former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Gulzar Ahmed, directed the “Chief Minister, Government of Sindh to ensure that the affectees of the above nullahs are rehabilitated…in all manners, preferably within a period of one year.”

At many instances, leaders of mainstream political parties also promised rehabilitation to the affectees, including PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who had requested the Supreme Court in June 2021 to review its decision on the Gujjar Nullah evictions, especially considering how Bani Gala was regularised at low rates.

In July 2021, Chief Minister Sindh, Murad Ali Shah, promised that 6,500 families evicted from the Gujjar and Orangi Nullahs’ vicinity would be allotted 80 square-yard plots in either the LDA Scheme 42 or Taiser Town.

The Current Situation

More than two years later, the affectees — jaded by the criminal bitterness of the ruling elite and flag-bearers of justice — still await rehabilitation. Not only that, but the nullahs are nowhere close to being cleaned up.

Many casualties have also already taken place in the area — residents have fallen into the drain while trying to manoeuvre through the narrow ground that this neoliberal development project has left for them after snatching away 30 feet of land on both sides of the nullah and widening the nullah without undertaking any safety protocols.

If the purpose of the anti-encroachment operation had only been the cleaning of the nullahs, then more than 50 percent of these demolitions could have been prevented. Additionally, some houses along the Gujjar Nullah were demolished even in 2016, citing the same reason (i.e. the cleaning of the nullah), but no progress was made on cleaning them between these years either.

Conflicts between the different political authorities of Karachi and the lack of a political will in favour of the marginalised have prolonged the affectees’ suffering. Many residents and their allied protestors have also faced illegal detentions for exercising their right to protest against this grave injustice, and more than 20,000 children from these settlements were forced to join the ranks of the 22.8 million Pakistani children aged between five to 16 years who are currently out of school — the second highest in the world.

On the other hand, houses in DHA, which have actually encroached upon the drains and led to urban flooding in the area and the city at large, are not likely to be bulldozed in a fashion similar to low-income settlements anytime soon.

And then we wonder why our people, especially the younger lot, feel dismayed by the system after seeing no semblance of justice in the law governing their lives.


A number of conclusions and observations can be drawn from the three cases presented above.

In the case of Saddar, it seems that an important aspect of the Supreme Court’s order ignores the fact that 72 percent of all jobs in Karachi are informal and that the street economy generates a major part of these jobs and the financial turnover. Removing this reality from the street economy of Karachi has had a major negative impact on the city’s informal economy.

Another aspect that was also ignored was the fact that many of the affectees had worked, and some also lived and worked, in the neighbourhoods from which they were evicted, for the last 50 to 70 years. Their customers and members of their supply and manufacturing chains shared common interests with them.

The court’s orders also meant the demolition of everything informally constructed post the Karachi master plan 1985, when Karachi was a city of 5 million as opposed to 16 million in 2018. This decision was also irrational as much of Karachi’s land use informally changed as a result of the government’s failure to provide space for important civic and commercial functions.

What was required was a prolonged dialogue with members of the informal street economy, whereby their space on the pavements could be made a part of a larger plan, through which Saddar could be reorganised to accommodate the existing street economy in an aesthetic manner while reducing congestion. Studies on Saddar tell us that this is possible.

On the question of heritage, which is an important issue for Saddar, we have witnessed the taking away of public functions in an important heritage building, and plans to replace them with gentrification for the elite. This is unacceptable, especially in the post-Covid and existing climate change context. In the case of the railways, the demolitions took place with a complete lack of knowledge of the real issues by both the court and the railway authorities.

The court gave orders and the authorities agreed to follow them without knowing that those orders could not be fulfilled, as in the case of the KCR. As a result of this, people lost their homes in 2018, and to this day the railway is not fully operational.

The court also ordered that the affectees be rehabilitated within one year with all civic facilities. The order was repeated by the court, the Sindh Government and political leaders many times. However, even after four years, no movement towards fulfilling these promises has been undertaken. And then the major issue is that rehabilitation is ordered by the court to take place one year after evictions have been carried out. The affectees ask, “Where do we go for a year?”


Given what has been said above, a number of important recommendations can be made:

  1. In cases of evictions, rehabilitation and changes in land use, the court should appoint a person or an academic institution that has knowledge of the city and its societal issues and the problem that the court is dealing with. If further research is required on the subject, then the terms of reference for it should be prepared jointly by the court, institution and representatives of the affectees.

  2. The rehabilitation plan should be a part of the eviction process and implemented before the end of it so that the affectees are not subject to any injustice. Necessary safeguards from fraud and misuse of law for political purposes should also be a part of the rehabilitation plan.

  3. The restoration should be explained to the affectees and some manner of their role in its design and implementation should be guaranteed.

  4. The court may have followed the law in its decisions and orders. However, the law does not always provide justice, since many laws are not ethical or just.

  5. Evictions should only take place where they benefit the larger socio-physical environment in favour of low-income groups and not where land use changes are proposed for commercial real estate development for the more affluent classes.

  6. In all three cases (Saddar, KCR and nullahs), the affectees have said that they were not able to fight the eviction process because the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in Pakistan, had given a verdict that was against them and which could not be challenged.

  7. Meanwhile, the Rangers have been asked by the Supreme Court to help the police and other law enforcing agencies to maintain law and order (as perceived by the government). The Rangers are dreaded in Karachi, and the hawkers revealed to this article’s lead author that their leadership was threatened with disappearance for good if they initiated agitation. The Rangers should not be used to silence peaceful protests which are permitted under the Constitution of Pakistan.

  8. Professionals have argued that the neoliberal paradigm, which promotes the gentrification of various locations for tourism purposes and follows the concept of the “world class city”, has overshadowed pro-people development ethics. This has influenced all sections of the elite and middle classes, including the judiciary. This concern needs to be looked into.

Arif Hasan is an architect and urban planner.
He can be reached at or

Dhuha Alvi is a social development and policy student who enjoys researching about the intersections of gender and class with politics.
She can be reached at

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 4th, 2023