Saturday June 22, 2024

This land is our land?

There is good chance that your home is built upon unjust usurpation of poor

By Editorial Board
May 31, 2024
Men sleep on benches under the shade of trees at a park on a hot summer afternoon in Karachi on May 24, 2024, amid the ongoing heatwave. — AFP
Men sleep on benches under the shade of trees at a park on a hot summer afternoon in Karachi on May 24, 2024, amid the ongoing heatwave. — AFP

Imagine being the citizen of a country but having no right to the land under your feet or the roof above your head. If you struggle to imagine a scenario like this you likely belong to the relatively privileged class of Pakistanis who do not face becoming homeless or losing their business and livelihood every time there is an anti-encroachment drive or some space needs to be cleared for the next housing scheme. In fact, there is a good chance that your home is built upon the unjust usurpation of the poor and marginalized who make up the majority of this country. How does this happen? According to a report by Humans Rights Watch (HRW) released on Wednesday (May 28) ‘I Escaped with Only My Life: Abusive Forced Evictions in Pakistan’, Pakistan’s colonial era Land Acquisition Act of 1894 gives the government virtually unlimited scope to acquire land for vaguely defined “public purposes”. According to the HRW report, the law and others based on it give the state almost exclusive authority to decide what falls within the scope of “public purposes” and to displace people with minimum procedural safeguards. This may even include cases where the land ends up being used by private companies or public-private partnerships. The report is based on interviews with 36 victims of forced evictions from Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi and lawyers advocating for the rights of those evicted, urban planners, reviewed court decisions and laws governing Pakistan’s land tenure system.

While governments have the right to expropriate land for the public interest, the report notes, these evictions must be in line with both local laws and international humanitarian law and standards. This means those being evicted cannot simply be forced out and must have access to adequate legal and other forms of protection. The same can be said of cases in which evictions are meant to remove unlawful encroachment on public lands. However, authorities in Pakistan can often be highly arbitrary in determining what does and does not constitute an encroachment. For instance, the HRW report mentions the case of a man who had been running a small shop in Karachi for 70 years and had apparently paid timely rent to the municipal corporation, along with utility bills and taxes. Nevertheless, in 2018 his shop was demolished as part of an anti-encroachment drive. He is one of thousands of mostly poor and marginalized Pakistanis whose homes have been destroyed without adequate consultation, notice, compensation, resettlement assistance, or means of redress, as per the report. An estimated 8000 homes were cleared in Karachi’s Gujjar Nala alone in 2021 in response to urban flooding during the previous year. While ensuring the integrity of public infrastructure and other government lands is important, denying those affected proper compensation or alternative housing is inexcusable. And with urban sprawl only accelerating, the list of those forcibly evicted is set to get longer. Even more worryingly, this will include a lot of land that is helping feed a country where food insecurity is rampant.

All this leads one to question what the point of gaining independence was if our leaders do not plan on reforming or doing away with the laws of our former colonial masters. If the empire was unjust, how can its laws be otherwise? Aside from an outdated legal system, this issue also points to a highly unequal one. A poor man’s house or shop can become an encroachment but an expensive housing colony built over seized farmlands is apparently all above board. More pertinently, the spread of encroachments is largely a consequence of the inability to provide adequate housing to the poor. This should be the solution to the encroachments, not furthering the destitution of the underprivileged by forcing them from their homes.