Living in Karachi

TIMES are challenging for urban dwellers living in the corridors of the Karachi Circular Railway, nullahs and other similar locations. In keeping with judicial instructions, officials have been evicting settlers and demolishing structures to make way for KCR trains and anticipated wastewater and rainwater flows, while promising to provide alternative shelter. Yet, hundreds of KCR affectees have been living in the severe cold under the open sky. Despite political announcements, the chances of these hapless people acquiring shelter appear very remote. Whenever a rehabilitation and resettlement project has been launched in Karachi, outcomes have been undesirable.

When over 250,000 people were displaced by the Lyari Expressway development, a resettlement project was launched at a hefty cost. But many families were left out and had to attempt a futile pursuit of cash compensation and plots. The project is being investigated for reasons of transparency by a prime minister’s inquiry commission. Lack of formal and targeted land supply for housing the urban poor leads to the growth of katchi abadis, many of which are prone to evictions. If evictees acquire some financial strength, they move into squatter settlements of their choice. This is a people-led option of rehabilitation, frowned on by officialdom. But katchi abadis are a response to the government’s failed efforts to provide housing for low-income segments.

The absence of choices in large cities has led the poor to inhabit irregular spaces such as nullahbanks and semi-abandoned transit corridors like the KCR. Successive governments have indeed come up with rehabilitation schemes, but these have not kept pace with the growing number of people searching for shelter. Authorities initially attempted to bulldoze settlements but soon realised that it was an impossible task. Thereafter, they looked the other way as people settled at will. The phenomenon continues.

This syndrome is in need of a dispassionate analysis. It is evident that cities are inhabited by all manner of income groups. Cities that take care of only the rich will fail. In healthy cities, the poor have easy access to basic amenities. It is disappointing to note that successive governments have not given enough importance to housing. For example, the pro-poor Sindh Disposal of Urban Land Ordinance, 2002, was aimed at providing land for housing those seeking shelter through a targeted approach. The law led to institutionalisation of land disposal and took away the government’s discretionary powers for allotting land in a clandestine manner. It was seen as a move that went against political privileges and was repealed in 2006.

The poor often end up paying more than middle-income segments.

Similarly, the present regime announced the upgradation of 100 katchi abadis some four years ago, but no noticeable progress has been made. The idea was to survey the settlements and grant legal ownership, services and amenities. Land supply for lucrative real-estate enterprises is in full swing. Corridor M-9 (Super Highway) is a case in point where a huge suburban enclave is shaping up. But these land and property parcels have been appropriated by investors, not those without shelter.

It is often claimed that poor people need subsidies for housing which the state can no longer provide. This is not true. The poor pay for every service in the context of where they live, even if to the informal sector. Housing is acquired through payments to illegal entrepreneurs, building material providers and contractors. Handsome sums are given to musclemen of various ranks and profiles to ensure security. Water is acquired on higher costs from vendors. In many cases, the poor end up paying more than the middle- or upper-income groups.

Several steps need to be taken without delay. A housing need assessment survey must be carried out for Karachi as the starting point. The 2017 census details, when properly released, may provide empirical information. Such assessments will inform our decision-makers about the scale and characteristics of housing requirements, especially for the poor and low-income groups.

Concurrently, a land management study must be done to examine the availability of land for housing low-income groups. Modified delivery mechanisms, including an incremental housing development approach, may be adopted. The first preference must be given to those who have been periodically uprooted due to evictions within the city. The policy environment, led by the federal government, may be geared towards helping the urban poor. The Naya Pakistan Housing Authority should be asked to prepare a pilot project for the targeted delivery of affordable housing. Such an initiative would ensure the eradication of speculation and corruption regarding land. Housing credit packages must be developed. Housing choices, when generated according to solid preferences and affordability status, can meet the objectives.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2021

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