Planet of slums

Published July 21, 2023
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

“Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the 21st-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.” — Mike Davis

IN the shadows of relentless real estate advertising and other glitzy money-making shenanigans, a not-so-silent class war is being waged against the working masses of Pakistan’s cities. With each passing day, unaccountable administrators plan and construct more and more roads, plazas and other supposedly urgently needed infrastructure, whilst also facilitating the land grabs and unrestrained profiteering of militarised housing developers.

The cost is borne by teeming millions who build, feed, clothe and clean the city. They are dispossessed without alternative and cast out to rot.

In 1998, Islamabad’s population was barely 800,000; 25 years later it is approximately 2.5 million. Karachi and Lahore are now megacities that compare with the world’s biggest, boasting populations of 25m and 15m people respectively. Pakistan on the whole is the most urbanised country in South Asia; of a total population of 240m, about half live in towns and cities.

Like so many matters of genuine concern, the incessant rural-urban migration that is shaping the cityscape is completely ignored by the political and intellectual mainstream. The urban explosion is intensifying each day, millions of young people flocking out of their rural abodes in the hope that their futures will be as bright as the neon lights of the metropolis.

But there are no jobs. Casual labour is the norm. If you are better educated and have some economic and cultural capital, you might hope for good returns on a business venture, including startups. For the working masses, the options are limited to driving a taxi, street vending, and daily wage work in the construction sector and domestic service.

The CDA bulldozes homes to the ground at will.

Even such casual labour is barely tolerated by the ruling class. The Capital Development Authority in Islamabad, for instance, is now in the business of putting the poor out of business entirely.

Barely a day goes by without rehri-wallahs and roadside hotels being targeted by violent eviction campaigns. All of it happens, according to the CDA — and in the case of Empress Market in Karachi, the Supreme Court — to ensure sanctity of the rule of law.

The same law mandates brutal demolitions of working people’s homes. As the city expands into the rural hinterland, villages and goths are literally swallowed up whole. The most prominent example is that of Malir in Karachi, where an historic ecosystem and indigenous human populations are rapidly being consigned to the dustbin of history by the monstrosity that is Bahria Town Karachi.

This process is also proceeding apace in Islamabad, where the CDA is now on a mission to take possession of lands on the city’s outskirts, which it claims were legally acquired when the federal capital came into being in the late 1950s. However accurate these claims may be, what is ignored is that these lands are currently occupied by real people, the vast majority of them working-class migrants who have made Islamabad their home. Some have rented their shanties, others even ‘purchasing’ land on the proverbial stamp paper.

The CDA couldn’t care less. It brands these working-class homes as ‘illegal’, issues hollow slogans against the ‘land mafia’, and bulldozes them to the ground at will.

If newly emergent katchi abadis on the outskirts are major targets in eviction drives, decades-old squatter settlements in the city centre are also vulnerable to the violent modalities of administrators. Sometimes the slogan of ‘beautification’ is raised, but in most cases there is no attempt to hide the fact that katchi abadis are bulldozed to facilitate profitable ventures of the usual suspects.

And what of legal injunctions against summary evictions? The Supreme Court stayed such evictions in 2015 following the brutal demolition of a 25,000-strong katchi abadi in Sector I-11 of the federal capital. Punjab and Sindh have laws in operation that mandate regularisation for katchi abadis and resettlement in cases that they must be removed. But behind slogans about the rule of law, there is a de facto law that is designed to keep the rich and powerful in place.

If one lived under a rock and paid attention only to the billboards advertising gated housing communities, it might feel like all homes in our cities resemble a pristine corner plot in Bahria Town.

But thankfully many of us do not live under a rock. Whatever I have written here has been said and repeated over many years. It is not rocket science that the urban planning paradigm is completely elitist. Until it changes, those who are able must continue to resist evictions with all their might.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2023

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