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Residents along KCR track retain hope despite authorities not showing change of mind

Karachi

February 15, 2020

On Friday, when a segment of society living in the posh areas of Defence and Clifton celebrated Valentine’s Day sipping expensive coffees and eating exclusive cakes at high-end cafes, some 600 impoverished families living across the bridge in Gharibabad and Kashmir Mujahid Colony in District South had not had proper meal and sleep since the last three days.

Today on Saturday, as you read this piece, it is feared that these people may be rendered homeless because the authorities have declared that their homes where their past four generations also lived had been illegally constructed, due to which they are to be demolished. The families have been told to vacate their homes or else they might lose in an anti-encroachment operation whatever little assets they have in their houses that appear to be covering not more than 80 square yards.

The land belongs to the Pakistan Railways, which had notified on Thursday that it would carry out an anti-encroachment operation there on Saturday morning. Though it does not seem that the authorities would change their mind, the residents have not lost hope as they are reassuring each other that they will not find themselves homeless when Saturday will be over or at least they will be relocated.

Muhammad Yusuf Himayati, 55, was born in Gharibabad and his family has been living there since Pakistan came into being. “We are not against development. We appreciate it. But it should not be at the cost of our destruction,” he said. “The Supreme Court has ordered for our relocation but neither the Railways nor the governments are implementing this.”

Himayati is a leader of the residents’ action committee. His CNIC reads the permanent address of Gharibabad and his house receives bills from the K-Electric, the Sui Southern Gas Company and the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board. “How come all of a sudden, we are illegal occupants,” he questioned, adding that the Railways has also marked the PIDC and Clifton flyovers as encroachments. “Are they going to demolish them too?”

Muhammad Saleem, whose home is also in the line of possible demolitions, asked if the authorities had the courage to touch encroachments done by the mighty and powerful in the country. “They act against the poor only, because we are the soft target. Rather eliminating the poverty, they are bent on eliminating the poor. When [Prime Minister Imran Khan’s private residence in] Bani Gala can be regularised, why not ours.”

Saleem, who appears to be in his late 30s, lamented that their elected representatives who posed as their well-wishers before coming into power, were now not even attending their phone calls. He claimed that before the general elections, President of Pakistan Dr Arif Alvi, who was then leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), used to call him to ensure large attendance in political meetings.

“Yaar Saleem, aaj UC mein meeting hai hamari. Jitne zyada ho sake bande le kar aana. Rush hona chahye [Dear Saleem. Today we have a meeting at UC. Bring as many people as possible. There should be a big crowd],” he recalled Dr Alvi saying this to him before the elections. However, now he wonders if the president remembered him.

During his talk with The News, he dialed the number of Dr Alvi from which he used to call him. It was switched off. Saleem and most of the other men in the neighbourhood, who are daily wagers, have not been going to work since the Railways marked their walls and posted evacuation notices there. They fear something disastrous might happen if the authorities came to destroy their homes when they had gone to work.

The women of the neighbourhood are also as disturbed as the men. Many of them were standing at their doorsteps, talking to each other and asking the committee members if there was any news about the authorities changing their minds. However, the only update they got was that Khurram Sher Zaman, who is an elected MPA from the area on the ticket of the PTI ruling in the Centre, went to meet the Railways deputy superintendent concerned but he declined to postpone the demolition citing pressure.

Mumtaz, 35, is a mother of four. Her family is living in Gharibabad for the past 70 years. “Whenever we hear that our homes are going to be demolished, we almost die,” she said. “We had voted for the PTI because it promised a change. From its slogan, we had perceived that it will be a positive one, not this one which is snatching the shelters over our heads.”

Dashna, an elderly lady who started living here since she came to Pakistan from Bangladesh after the Fall of Dhaka, shared that she had become restless since these notices started landing. “Where will we go. We have our grandchildren in our homes. Their examinations are near. What will they do? We lost whatever we had in 1971, now we are going homeless again.”

No proper plan

The Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) project, for which the demolitions have been ordered, comprises a 29.41-kilometre-long circular railway loop along with the provision of a 13.69-kilometre-long two-way dedicated track along the Pakistan Railways’ mainline, which stretches from the Karachi City Station to the Drigh Road Station.

After the circular railway was shut down in the city during 1990s, the provincial government in the late 2000s proposed to start it again. Initially, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) showed interest in the project and its cost was estimated at Rs246.58 billion. However, due to differences with the Sindh government, Jica left the project. Later, the KCR was included in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Jica had proposed to invest in the project at a 0.1% minimal interest rate that was supposed to be returned in 40 years. On the other hand, the current markup rate under CPEC is much higher.

The Japanese agency had also presented a resettlement plan for the residents living in the right of way of the KCR route and termed such people ‘project-affected people’ (PEP) after carrying out numerous surveys. One of Jica’s conditions to move ahead with the project was to resettle PEPs. However, under CPEC, there is no such condition.

According to the Railway Technology, a company that deals with leading issues related to the railways around the world, the restoration plan of the KCR started in 2005 to meet the increasing transportation needs of the people of Karachi. The project was initiated after several years. Its website says: “In 2009, the Karachi Urban Transport Corporation [KUTC] was proposed [under] which KCR would be operated as a semi-autonomous body.”

“On completion of the project, Karachi Urban Transport Corporation will oversee the management of Karachi Circular Railway and an international operator of repute will be appointed for operations and maintenance of Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) on the pattern of successful role models of Singapore Mass Transit Rail (SMRT), Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) and Dubai Metro.”

However, the KUTC web portal seems inactive for a long time. There are no latest updates available on the website. The last news, which was updated on the KUTC website in 2015, read: “Federal government desires to launch Karachi Circular Railway project as early as possible. Federal and Sindh governments want the Japan International Cooperation Agency to execute this project.”

When Jica was engaged in the project, the resettlement of the people living along the track was considered a key issue. In April 2009, the KUTC carried out the Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) in conformity with guidelines of the World Bank, Jica, and the Asian Development Bank. It was proposed to provide an 80-square-yard plot and Rs50,000 [as] cash compensation against each household unit that would be demolished.

However, since the departure of Jica from the project, no concrete plan has come to surface regarding the resettlement of the people living along the KCR track.