Without shelter

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

EVICTIONS in Karachi are the new norm. Whether it is the widening of a carriageway, the cleaning of a nullah or the clandestine facilitation of real-estate enterprises, the homes of the underprivileged are the usual target of demolition.

In a recent episode, residents of Mujahid Colony in the Nazimabad/North Nazimabad precincts faced the administration’s wrath. Civil society organisations said that over 600 houses were destroyed. About 400 more will be razed. Over 2,000 families will be affected. The so-called development projects in the city are likely to impact more low-income settlements. Disappointingly, apart from Jamaat-i-Islami, no political party has supported the right to shelter for the poor. Land supply to benefit the urban poor has long since ceased to exist.

According to reports, 62 per cent of Karachi’s population resides in informal settlements. This situation evolved after the state apparatus failed to provide affordable shelter options to the urban poor. True, the Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority Act, 1987, had created a legal option for an institutionalised process of regularising squatter settlements. The 1990s saw a robust process of surveying, targeting and regularising settlements which fulfilled the laid-down criteria. Many pilot initiatives helped provide technical guidance to this useful enterprise. However, this pro-poor policy experienced a blow after the decade ended.

In the 2000s, provincial and federal governments began to see land as a transactable commodity for generating revenue and profits. Land supply as a public service venture for benefiting the poor was stopped. The survey and regularisation of katchi abadis was impeded. Today, attempts to transact the land along Karachi’s coastline (including Karachi’s islands), all-out non-transparent support to real estate ventures along the M-9 Motorway, inflicting damage on katchi abadis under the garb of nullah-cleaning or transit-way developments, and the expansion of the establishment’s real estate footprint are the order of the day.

Democracy has not helped Karachi’s poor families.

Invaluable ecological assets on the city’s peripheries are continuously usurped by dubious land development enterprises. Local people have been uprooted and their livelihood systems — mostly livestock rearing and farming — have been lost. The options of shelter, housing and spaces for livelihoods are virtually nil.

Previously, there was a clear demarcation of urban and rural areas in Karachi. The city proper was surrounded by an agricultural and livestock belt that offered livelihoods to the local population and good-quality, cheap agri-products to the residents. With the rapid expansion of real estate, the local people have been suddenly deprived of livelihood and shelter options. Many try to relocate within the city depending on social and clan associations. Sadly, while the authorities have allowed hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the peripheries to be swallowed up by private real estate ventures, they have failed to serve the urban poor who have legitimate need of shelter options.

Democracy at the federal and provincial level has not helped the urban poor in Karachi. Every five years, elected representatives are sent to the assemblies. But the provincial and national legislatures have failed to safeguard the right to basic shelter for millions. Powerful interest groups influence land grant decisions in a completely opaque manner for private gains. The urban poor become the biggest losers.

At present, the possibilities of shelter for the urban poor are extremely limited. This cross section of society, which comprises more than one-third of the population of Karachi, struggles to maintain a normal life. For many single males who earn Rs20,000 per month or less, ‘shelter’ options include sleeping on footpaths, green belts, open public spaces, the edge of nullahs, in front of shops and similar spaces. Eating from local welfare outlets often saves them some cash but it is not enough to enable them to accumulate enough to access a proper shelter in time.

For families earning the same amount, living with a relative on rent-free or rent-sharing basis or squatting along invisible locations are ‘choices’. Despite their hard work, households cannot save enough to own a formally supplied parcel of land or unit of built housing. One wonders how these people can be expected to survive when the city completely shuns the options of land and housing. Over 5.5m folks in the city brave this challenge.

Many donor agencies are supporting development work in the province. One of the essential guidelines followed in such ventures is to ensure the provision of alternative shelters to those evicted. Our government would do well to do the same in the case of thousands of evicted families that are in dire straits after losing shelter, assets and the hope to access these essentials.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, December 26th, 2022