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June 16, 2021

No place to call home

 
June 16, 2021

There are thousands of people in Karachi right now who will not have an address they can call home. These are not ‘homeless’ people – of which there are many and who need state intervention on an urgent basis. These are people who had homes, perhaps not in the most ideal settings – but home nevertheless. The fact is that Karachi city's development has never really been properly planned, and since the decades ago when the process began, the city has grown into the largest metropolis in the country housing nearly 20 million people. In this megacity, then, housing is an inevitable challenge. That challenge however is exacerbated by anti-poor policies, an apathetic state structure and profit-hungry private entities. In the most recent case of the housing crisis, we have seen the planned evictions along the Gujjar and Orangi nullahs in the city. These evictions would displace 40,000-50,000 people, most of them poor, and most of whom have documents leasing them the land the houses are built on – documents from various state entities that have from time to time handled the affairs of migration into Karachi and housing for the people who settled there.

The decision that the evictions be carried out and the houses of these people demolished, even though this would lead to thousands of families living without homes, shows the impact of what poor development can do in a large city. There is a difference between how a city like Karachi is handled and planned, and how a sleepy town is planned. There is need for planned housing – not just for the posh that live in gated communities but for the teeming millions that need proper housing projects that give them at least a chance at civilised living.

In all this, there is no objection to removing encroachments built over the Gujjar nullah and Orangi nullah, since that disrupts sanitation and water flow through these important channels. However, would the building of a road on either side of a nullah not come under laws which require that the land be purchased and the road then built on it after due compensation to those affected by their houses being demolished? Housing is a basic necessity. In fact, the right to housing – not just shelter – should ideally be a fundamental human right. As per the UN, housing is “the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.” Displacing people who have lived in an area for decades would displace entire communities. While it is certainly past time to start following the letter of the law, untangling the thicket that has been caused by decades of land regularisation policies needs to be done in a more careful manner. These matters need to be thought out carefully and a master plan from a new perspective developed once again for Karachi. The one that dates back to the 1960s is simply not sufficient. There have been too many cases of illegal construction on various lands. But, somehow, only the disenfranchised and under-privileged get eviction notices. The people of Karachi deserve justice, no matter to which community they belong, what their income level is, and where they live. Meanwhile, there are those that can operate with impunity. Those who cannot afford to buy influence with the state are treated as interlopers in the only homes they have ever known.