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A city with two souls

May 12, 2010

THE much-touted Prime Minister's Housing Scheme (PMHS) is heading for doom. The housing minister disclosed recently that the government had signed 36 MoUs with a number of foreign construction companies but none had so far begun work on the project aiming for one million 'low-cost' housing units completed at a cost of Rs40bn.

Insecurity has been cited as the main factor for the reluctance of foreigners to bring their investment to Pakistan.

But the PMHS was a still-born scheme. Our planners failed to understand the implications of a scheme not based on ground realities. In a country where the housing backlog is calculated at seven million — a figure which grows by 500,000 every year — how far would a million housing units built in an unspecified period take us?

According to experts the cost of Rs40bn for a million houses is itself unrealistic. The construction cost of each house will be much higher and with the House Building Finance Corporation now being inducted to give loans these houses will be beyond the reach of the low-income classes.

With the government refusing to take a hard look at the realities, unscrupulous, avaricious and ruthless elements have stepped in as happens in any sector where basic needs are not met legally.

The poor are being provided land that has been encroached upon by land mafias which have grown in size. Take the case of Karachi where the influx of immigrants from upcountry is estimated at some 30,000 families every year. They need shelter. The natural growth rate also creates a demand for housing.

It is ironical that the government which had pledged roti, kapra aur makan to the voter has been turning a blind eye to this unmet need. Worse, the parties constituting the coalition government are accused of having become land grabbers to fulfil this need for shelter which could have been done through legal means as holders of office.

By choosing not to do so, they have made the state the primary loser while the principles of town planning have had to be set aside. And who wins? The parties that rule. They are state actors who are using their control over sectors of the state administration, such as the police, to facilitate the illegal seizure of land.

Parveen Rehman, director OPP-RTI (Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute), has all the facts and figures at her fingertips. She tells me that since 1996 when Karachi began expanding spatially — the new sabzimandi project was undertaken on the Super Highway and work on the Northern Bypass began — land grabbing became big business in the metropolis.

The 1,500 or so goths that had previously been on the periphery of the city found themselves engulfed by the rolling tide of urban expansion. They became easy victims.

The size and scale of this phenomenon is not realised and goes unreported. Only when there is a problem — as in 2006 when Juma Goth and Sikander Goth were seized — the matter figures in the media. According to Parveen Rehman, 3,000 acres of land subdivided into 100,000 plots valued at Rs25bn is sold every year in the goths.

This is bound to become an explosive issue some day. It is resulting in an unplanned change in land use that is distorting Karachi's civic planning — whatever there is of the latter. Obviously this will make Karachi a more difficult place to live in.

And who are the land grabbers who are having such a field day? Ms Rehman identifies them 1) experienced land suppliers; 2) coercive land grabbers; 3) goth elders who own the village; 4) members of political parties.

How does this illegal activity proceed? Parveen Rehman describes it graphically as she is in touch with the goth residents and has observed the phenomenon closely. Those experienced in this business go about it quietly. They simply purchase huge chunks of land in the goths, subdivide them into smaller plots and sell them.

About a third of this land is taken by the homeless to put up a shelter. The remaining two-thirds go to speculators who push up land prices. The coercive land grabbers are the ones who use force. They may pay for some land and occupy another chunk through violent means.

Crushed in between the two, the goth elders describe the first as the 'peela saanp' (a benign snake) and the second as the 'kala saanp' who attacks and kills. They feel discretion is the better part of valour and make peace with the first and earn some money in the process. The party workers just grab land where they feel they can with the backing of their party and various government agencies. They face practically no hurdle except when the local people resist.

Given the large number of people who have their share in the deal, the original owner gets barely a third of the amount paid. Thus a new category of un-regularised land is emerging.

Although over 72 per cent of the katchi abadis in Karachi had been notified in 1985 — the period up to 1997 has also been covered under the new notification law — the city fathers cannot sit back and plan the metropolis. There is too much activity on the ground that is changing land use.

This is land-grabbing of a new kind. Its features are disturbing. One is the size of the operation. The other is the power and reach of those involved. The victims are the impoverished who lack political clout and influence to stop such activity peacefully.

Hence when matters get unbearable they try to resist and invariably violence results creating a law and order situation. Not that land grabbers do not try to touch the affluent areas. But the rich have their connections and know how to protect themselves. What is emerging is a city with two souls — the Karachi of the rich and the Karachi of the poor.

zubeidam2@gmail.com