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Ghareebabad: a community at risk

Opinion

March 27, 2019

On Thursday, March 21, approximately 70 homes within the settlement of Ghareebabad were served seven-day eviction notices by the Pakistan Railways (PR).

In these 70 homes, several hundred people live, four generations of people were born, and communities were created. The diversity and relationships of Ghareebabad matters little to a generic eviction notice with a photocopied signature at the bottom and the blunt line: “You are encroacher on the Railway land.”

For several years, PR has been trying to revive the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) project, a public transit project that opened originally in 1969 but closed in 1999 due to financial losses. For over a decade, the Pakistani government has attempted to revive the KCR and most recently, it has been included in the list of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects. Ghareebabad is one of 28 settlements potentially under threat of eviction and demolition for the KCR’s revival, and it is the first of them to receive house-by-house notices. Located in the heart of the city, Ghareebabad is walking distance from Karachi’s financial district on I I Chundrigar Road, the city’s most upscale hotels, and a handful of government and newspaper offices.

The first things many people in Ghareebabad mention are time and community. “Hamare dada dadi yahan rehte thay, aur hum bhi yahan dada dadi ban gaye hain” (Our grandparents used to live here; and we too have become grandparents here), a woman says, standing outside while her younger family members peek out from behind the door. Her comments speak to what is at risk in Ghareebabad: it is not just buildings, but rather physical and social space in which they literally built their homes, birthed and raised children, and associated with home and community.

Many families came to this settlement in the 1950s and 1960s, and residents speak of parents and grandparents investing significant money in building and maintaining the homes they live in now. A third generation was born and raised here, where they played and walked to school along the tracks, and the beginning of a fourth generation is emerging as well. “Hum ne khud banaya. Teen nasalein guzar gayee hain aur abhi hum yahin rehte hain”, an elderly man says, as a toddler crawls into his lap.

Particularly for the women of the settlement, Ghareebabad is a place where they feel comfortable enough to walk around freely without worrying about safety. Just as much as they fear the loss of houses, they fear the loss of safety, familiarity and comfort if they were to be displaced. A young woman and student says, “Hum kaheen bhi araam sey jaa sakti hain, kiyunke humein pata hai ke humaare buzurg bahir bethe hotay hain muhalle ki security karne ke liye. Defence jaise areas mein toh log cameras lagate hain aisi security ke liye”. (We can go anywhere without any worry because we know that our elders are sitting outside, keeping a watch on our neighbourhood. People living in [posh] Defence-like areas have to install cameras for such security) Other women spoke of the constantly open doors, which people walk in and out of constantly throughout the day to see friends and to ask for help or cooking ingredients. They contrasted that to the bungalows, gates, and walls of Defence and other parts of the city.

A common concern among men and women alike is losing access. The children go to nearby schools and the sick and elderly go to nearby hospitals. For many of the residents, if they are to be displaced, they don’t want just resettlement or monetary compensation; they also want to be promised alternative work. Ghareebabad’s central location near hotels, offices, and bazaars has great benefit for the residents, many of whom work as rickshaw-wale and drivers, shopkeepers, and employees at the various large offices and hotels nearby.

Ali Shah is a high court advocate, and a resident of Ghareebabad, who has been fighting legal battles to challenge demolition plans. For him, what is most problematic is the shifting goalposts of legality and illegality. He notes that a decade ago, when the Pakistani government attempted to revive the KCR with the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the residents of the 28 settlements built alongside the tracks were promised a resettlement plan, and officially documented as Project Affected Persons (PAPs). About five years ago, the JICA-funded KCR revival attempt was dropped and it has only recently been picked up as part of CPEC. However, this change came with a notable change for residents of the 28 settlements: they were now “encroachers” rather than PAPs, and no resettlement plan has been promised.

To be affected by something is a passive act, while to encroach is an active act, with illegal connotations. But residents recognise that this illegality is not an objective truth but more of a temporary and artificial one. They note that in the past, Pakistan Railways had unofficially collected rent from them and various other government entities sent them official documents. They note that during election time, politicians of all levels campaign for votes in the settlement. An indignant resident says:“Bohat say siyaasat daan vote mangnay key liye aaye. Agar hum illegal hain, toh jin logon ko hum ne votes diye, wo bhi illegal hain” (Many politicians have come here asking for votes. If we are illegal, then those we voted for are also illegal).

The irony of the recent decision regarding Bahria Town Karachi – allowing it to pay Rs460 billion for nearly 17,000 acres illegally acquired land in Malir – being announced on the same day that homes in Ghareebabad were served eviction notices is not lost on the residents. “Wo kehtay hain ke hum ghair qanooni hain lekin iss mulk mein do qanoon hain, eik ameeron key liye aur eik ghareebon key liye” (They say we are illegal but there are two kinds of law in this country, one for the rich and another for the poor), states an elder in the settlement.

Some people have commented that the residents of Ghareebabad and similar settlements came to live on their land illegally, as if they had not settled in post-Partition Karachi when rules and policies were entirely different, when Karachi was experiencing an unprecedented migration and population growth.

The residents are themselves called illegal, as if their presence and livelihood had not been legitimised countless times over the decades through government documents, provision of public amenities, and visits by politicians ranging from hopeful political candidates to Shaheed Benazir Bhutto. The residents are told to move elsewhere, onto land they come to own or rent legally – as if that is a choice they have simply neglected to make for over half a century, and not a horribly violent, prohibitively expensive and unfathomably disruptive reality that could be forced upon them.

Houses are at risk, but so is a community associated with safety, familiarity, memory, access and relationships.

The writers are researchassociates at the Karachi Urban Lab, IBA.

Twitter: @KarachiUrbanLab

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