Disappearing homes

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

FOR more than three years now, evictions have been underway in different Karachi locations. Dwellings along river banks, nullahs and expanded corridors have been demolished. Hundreds of households along the Karachi Circular Railway corridor and the Gujjar nullah have been evicted and declared ‘illegal’. No official quarter responds to the legitimate issue of decent shelter for the affected.

Conversely, official quarters provide a way out when land is occupied by the affluent in illegally developed housing schemes. Going by TV and other media commercials, a new city is emerging along the M-9 motorway, embracing Hyderabad. If one is an overseas or local investor, then the sky is the limit where such bountiful tracts are concerned.

Political interests have been a primary factor in determining the procedure of land supply. This interest superseded urban and regional planning considerations, the objectives and policies of the administration, fiscal liabilities and even legal limitations. Under clandestine pressure from establishment elements, developers and investors, provincial governments continue to allot land at nominal prices to their favourites.

There is no transparency, and bypassing laws, regulations and norms is a routine exercise that obstructs land supply processes. Briefly, land parcels are allotted due to political pressure. Political bribes are also given in the form of land. Government departments, law enforcement, financial institutions and urban development authorities carry out orders from above.

Political interests have determined land supply.

Recently, a real estate enterprise of the establishment acquired thousands of acres along the M-9 Motorway. Land sales are being fuelled by profit-making — very low prices are paid to the provincial government. Clan influences, appropriation and possession of land have always had an impact on the direction of development. Landlords have lobbied with public-sector officials to devise development policies/ priorities to maximise their own benefit.

Planning and development of communication schemes, transportation projects and investment in infrastructure plans have been largely manipulated. The fringes of the large cities are the most important choices in this regard. The north-western outskirts of Karachi have been a major location for local landlords to benefit from.

Existing land supply patterns show the disparity between the privileged and disadvantaged classes. Land was procured, developed and sold on the basis of conditions set by public-sector agencies in liaison with powerful interest groups. These groups attempted to maximise their profits by moulding decision-making in their own favour. Thus the unprivileged had to fend for themselves in informal locations as per the availability of land.

There have been many negative repercussions. The inner ring of Karachi within a 10-kilometre radius contains most of the upper-income groups. Larger squatters and low-income localities are far away; the poor have to commute long distances to their place of work via dilapidated transport systems. The provincial government can always direct the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority to comprehensively survey the squatter settlements within its jurisdiction, and regularise and notify those that fulfil prescribed conditions, thus ensuring security of tenure to the hapless residents.

All these steps are legally permissible but require policy support from those at the top. At the same time, the technical assessment of informally developed high-rise structures can be done across all katchi abadis. These structures can be categorised for possibilities of retrofitting, rehabilitation, demolitions and re-development. If comprehensive katchi abadi regularisation and rehabilitation are done in a poor-friendly manner, millions will benefit. More than half of Karachi’s population resides in such settlements.

A 2018 court judgement appears to endorse the view that real estate development can be legalised even if illegally begun. No wonder that procedures of land development and supply and the distinction between the formal and informal sectors are diminishing due to the administration’s failure to control the factors governing the land market. De facto ownership of land is now given due regard in development operations and is often temporarily recognised.

Incremental housing development for the poor has been found as the most effective mode of benefiting the poor. For instance, there can be successful replications of the Khuda Ki Basti model in Karachi and other cities. Lessons learnt can be applied to making housing accessible to our teeming millions. The reception area concept to filter and target the real poor for extending shelter benefit is tried and tested and can be used in new land supply schemes with a focus on the urban poor.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2021

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