Which way home?
The right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity is a basic human right. Unfortunately, this is a right not everyone has – even in Pakistan’s only metropolis, Karachi – a city that has never really been properly planned, and where housing is an inevitable challenge. That challenge is exacerbated by anti-poor policies, an apathetic state structure and profit-hungry private entities. In the most glaring case of the housing crisis in the city, we have seen the planned evictions along the Gujjar and Orangi nullahs in the city over the past more than three years. These evictions have affected thousands of families, most of them poor, and most of whom have documents leasing them the land the houses are built on – documents from various state entities that have from time to time handled the affairs of migration into Karachi and housing for the people who settled there. According to official figures, more than 4,000 houses and close to 2,000 houses along the Gujjar and Orangi Town nullahs were demolished after authorities planned to widen these storm drains to avoid future urban flooding; rights advocates though estimate a larger number than this. Since then, the families living in these areas have faced a combination of apathy and oppression by the government.
After almost three years and a lot of delays, the Sindh government has earmarked around 200 acres of land for the rehabilitation of the displaced people of these areas. The government has proposed two options: giving an 80-sq yard plot to the people and letting them build their house themselves or providing them fully constructed houses. The government seems more interested in going with the latter. But this does not end here. There are several complexities that the government has to deal with to ensure that the displaced people have access to decent housing. The rehabilitation project is said to require at least Rs10 billion. So far the CM of Sindh has allotted Rs1 billion for the project; one hopes that the remainder of the amount is allotted as well so that the affected can finally get on to a path of some stability. It is also concerning that amid all this, the voice of the affected is missing. If the senseless destruction of their homes was not enough, they are now left living in a highly dangerous place with multiple death traps. Partially destroyed houses pose additional threats to residents. There must be urgency in policymaking and the voices of all people should be included in the initiatives taken for the displaced. Any doubts or misgivings regarding the resettlement plan must be catered to, at least heard out. For many, moving away means moving away from livelihoods and from a community they have lived in for years now.
While it is certainly past time to start following the letter of the law, untangling the thicket that has been caused by decades of land regularization policies needs to be done in a more careful manner, and a master plan from a new perspective developed once again for Karachi. The one that dates back to the 1960s is simply not sufficient. There have been too many cases of illegal construction on various lands. But, somehow, only the disenfranchised and under-privileged get eviction notices. There are those that can operate with impunity while those who cannot afford to buy influence with the state are treated as interlopers in the only homes they have ever known.
Published in The News 05 Jun 2023