Monday May 29, 2023

Evicting students

October 24, 2019

Unbeknownst to most of us, about one year ago, the bureaucrats who staff the Capital Development Authority made a policy decision declaring ‘student hostels’ located in residential areas as illegal.

Pursuant to this decision, student hostels in all of Islamabad have been systematically evicted – often through police crackdowns carried out in the middle of the night. The last place where student hostels in the capital city were able to survive was Sector E-11, because of a legal ambiguity about whether or not the CDA’s by-laws apply there.

However, last week, in E-11 the CDA launched an operation against student hostels. My friends and I are amongst the affectees of the recent operation. We were literally thrown out on the streets. Where we should have been focusing on our exams, we are fighting a difficult legal battle against city authorities simply to retain the roof over our heads.

Because the issue of student housing strikes a chord with most humane souls, just about everyone, including two of the country’s leading dailies, seem to have noticed the issue over the last few days – except the PTI leadership. The PTI leadership’s complicity in, or at least its silence over this burning issue, is particularly hard to understand because university students represent a demographic – young, urban and college educated – which proved crucial to the success of the PTI in the 2018 Elections.

The PTI’s propagandists still like to liberally lace their speeches with slogans like “education emergency” and “knowledge economy”. The bitter reality is that when it came to the simple and pragmatic question of whether students have a right to live in residential areas, their lips have remained sealed. As students, we feel that the PTI has abandoned us, after having used us as electoral fodder.

In making this policy decision to declare hostels “non-residential”, urban authorities seem to have given little thought to the fact that there are now around 1600,000 students enrolled in higher education institutions, according to statistics published by the Higher Education Commission. Since universities do not, and perhaps cannot, provide official hostels to all of these 16 lakh students, most students reside as ‘co-tenants’ in the residential sectors of Pakistan’s metropolitan centres.

This is why the CDA’s eviction drive against student hostels has sent a shockwave across the country. Students are slowly realizing that if this drive, which has been going on in Islamabad for almost a year, goes unchecked, municipal authorities in other metropolitan centres could also follow suit. In that case, we could all be in danger.

The short shrift given to the issue of student tenancy by Pakistan’s urban authorities is most unfortunate. A view of the developed world reveals that societies there view students as a valuable addition to their existing social structures. The administration of host cities extends all possible assistance to make student immigrants comfortable in their new environment. These nations also have adequate legal and market provisions to encourage part-time employment of students in terms of self-support.

Our present rent laws, which entail substantial registration costs, are generally designed for families. Families generally have a clear structure of legal responsibility and rent entire houses for extended periods of time. Student tenancy arrangements, on the other hand, are often more ‘fluid’ and complex. It takes dozens of students to muster enough financial means to rent one bungalow. And after every few months, a few students leave the house and fresh ones arrive. The laws are simply not designed for registering such fluid and flowing tenancy as are required by student tenants.

The law in the United Kingdom (Housing Act 2004 & 1985 and rules made thereunder) offers a solution to this problem known an HMO (House in Multiple Occupation) licence. An HMO licence provides legal cover to student tenants who choose to share the common facilities of a house while being unrelated to each other. To encourage this housing arrangement, the UK has even exempted such licence-holders from council tax.

It is most unfortunate that the government’s eviction drive has left students with no option but to knock at the door of courts. We feel that our future in Pakistan’s urban centres now hangs in a precarious balance.

We sincerely hope that policymakers at the highest level – who claim to have a vision for creating a ‘knowledge economy’ – will look into the issue of student tenancy and adopt a more pro-student policy.

Awais Anjum and Daniyal Abdullah are students of governance and public

policy in an Islamabad-based university.

Twitter: @free_spiritDD and @daniyal_abdulla