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April 3, 2019

The right to shelter


April 3, 2019

In the now-viral video, that shows an unidentified part of Islamabad’s slums, a traumatised woman is expressing grief and shock over the sudden demolition of our house. Standing on the ruins of a broken charpoy, she frantically shows the debris of her humble abode.

The heart-wrenching fact of this particular eviction was that it was carried out behind the backs of the occupants who mainly belong to the working class; they were at work when their houses were attacked.

The woman, and the rest of the people seen in the video, men and children, is one of the many victims of the government’s anti-encroachment drive that was started soon after the PTI came into power.

From the 2013 elections to the lead-up to the 2018 elections, the PTI made promises that were tinted with gold. It argued that all political parties of Pakistan, save the PTI, were slated against the poor; and promised to bring a much-needed change which would see corruption-riddled Pakistan morphing into a welfare state.

The government’s current policies, however, are against the very principles of an egalitarian state and are in favour of the same powerful lot against whom the party leadership used to give speeches atop a container. The party has also now proved that there is no visible ‘change’ in its policies which are similar to the eviction drive of its political rival, the PML-N.

When it comes to infrastructural development, and drawing the lines for ‘multi-billion projects’ on a map, slums are considered by almost all ruling parties the unnecessary settlements that must be razed down. The fact that there are people living there is of no substance. Why should working class families have any part in the state’s policies? They are the invisible people who are left to fight social and economic challenges on their own.

To justify their lack of empathy for the plight of the poor, educated people with their fancy degrees and a 9-5 job where the sole aim is to rise up the ladder of monetary compensation argue that all these settlements are ‘illegal’ – a word casually thrown to dismiss the injustices meted out against a weaker segment of society.

This narrative is further cemented through prime-time news discussions that allow analysts to claim that the responsibility of improving their standard of living lies on the shoulders of the poor. Such unprincipled analysts believe that everyone can have a six-figure package if he/she tries hard for it.

For people who are living in a thick bubble of entitlement and privilege, and for those who are living in palatial houses bought from inheritance money, a biased system’s problems that create deep class divisions within a society are non-existent. They are unable to figure out how a certain system cripples the growth of the lower class and limits the wealth in the hands of a few.

A system which is inherently against the working class cannot allow them to reach the top of the ladder and do things ‘the middle-class way’. Many people who got settled in slums are those who flee their homes to escape conflicts, life-threatening diseases and abject poverty and settle far from home in the hopes of survival. Most of them live on daily wages. Instead of our scorn and apathy, they deserve our acknowledgment that they, like any citizen of Pakistan, have a right to shelter. By seeing the people’s possession of government land through the lens of criminality, many people don’t provide the sufferers an opportunity of being heard, and strip them of their democratic right to protest against such injustices.

What the woman in the video is going through is an example of what the eviction drive actually means. Such drives are spread across all major cities of the country where people from different parts of Pakistan have settled down to have a decent life. A few months back in Karachi, more than 1,500 shops were demolished under the guise of the anti-encroachment drive. Now, the colonies that were built on the unused railway tracks are also apparently a block that has to be removed for the city’s development.

All this means that there will be more evictions and a horrifyingly large number of homeless people. The PTI must realise that in a welfare state, it is the responsibility of the state to provide shelter to its citizens. It is laudable that it has launched an affordable housing scheme, but it will be equally commendable if it takes immediate steps to relocate the people whose houses have been razed to the ground. A government cannot boast about providing shelters to the unprivileged while simultaneously running an operation that leaves thousands of people homeless.

The writer is a subeditor at The News

Email: [email protected]

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