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July 11, 2021

Gujjar, Orangi and Original Sin

July 11, 2021

Karachi is a creature of the Frankensteinian variety – assembled by stitching together body parts from a dozen different corpses. Body parts that shouldn’t go together but have been forced to throb to the same spluttering heartbeat. A beast created by man.

Organs now grow at their own will – cancerous growths swelling into each other, suffocating one another. Flailing limbs tethered to twenty puppeteers – from the KMC to the DMC, and the KDA to the DHA.

Karachi is hard work, but if you make it, you’ll find ways to filter out the noise. Sixteen million people accept this bargain every day. It’s still no beauty; but it’s a beast that can be tamed. As the city coughs up black fumes for the sea breeze to carry into the lungs of the powerless, the powerful roll up their windows.

But, last August, the windows wouldn’t roll up.

A year has passed since the Supreme Court first asked the city administration why the nullah wasn’t cleared. And it’s been quite the year for humankind.

The world has survived;

Vaccines in our veins;

Nothing we can’t do;

Except clear the drains.

By now, you’ve probably read the facts in a dozen different articles; but as long as it is their reality, we must tell their tale. The Supreme Court is in session – this time at its Karachi registry. The chief justice is now considering a more permanent solution. The KMC is ready to get going: it has spent much of the past few days marking homes for demolition, like plague crosses in 17th Century Britain. Outside, children ask the court to let them keep their homes, as their parents wave leases they insist were given by various official entities. All that stands between thousands and homelessness is a stay-order of the Sindh High Court.

But the bench has made up its mind: the leases (though not examined) must be fake. As the gavel strikes, so shall the bulldozers. The stay order is lifted. Sindh and the federal government had better figure out what to do with all the kids.

Consider the absurdity. The courtroom that gave the verdict is, itself, absent from the city’s master plan. The KMC that will demolish these homes is the same body that issued so many of the leases. It also happens to be the employer of so many of the inhabitants – who built the city, only to have it destroy them. And as the state insists the leases are fake, it doesn’t shy away from sending electricity bills to the more fortunate piles of rubble that it once provided utility connections to.

Though Gujjar, Mehmoodabad and Orangi are now synonymous with the entire city’s bowel movements, they’re supposed to be storm drains. So as the court sees it, whether it’s polythene or concrete, if it’s blocking the drain, it has to go.

But, of course, as Shazia Hasan has written (for Dawn), there’s no word on the blockage right at the mouth of the drain, which just happens to fall in the DHA. Or underground causes such as the pillars and basement of the Shahrah-e-Quaideen to Shahrah-e-Faisal flyover. There’s also the fact that the demolitions aren’t even being conducted to widen the nullah as much as they are to make way for a 30-foot road on either side – a road that is present in neither the master plan, nor the order of the Supreme Court.

Now, after weeks of bickering with the federal government and many rounds of Whose Fault is it Anyway, Sindh has announced that it intends to give out 80 square-yard plots to those displaced, and has asked the Supreme Court for money from a Rs460 billion land settlement to build homes on them

Of course, if the past tells us anything, the homeless will probably have to wait some time before they see any of this – if at all. Ask the thousands displaced along the boulevards of Malir, the lanes of Lyari, or the tracks of the Karachi Circular Railway.

But even if it plays out as intended, there’s really nothing to laud here. Sindh may have pounced upon the chance to use the Supreme Court’s order to build a random road along the nullah, but it didn’t pay much attention to the part where it was asked to actually clean it up. And as the Karachi Bachao Tehreek Reports, were it not for that road, most of these displacements wouldn’t even have been necessary.

And, as to the Supreme Court, if it releases the money for rehabilitation, then it’s worth remembering that the land that paid for it was supposed to be used for low-income incremental housing, anyway. It’s also worth considering why compensation and rehabilitation weren’t important enough to consider before the orders for demolition were already given. What’s being promised is the absolute bare minimum being paraded as a magnanimous concession.

That speaks to two things. First, it provides no consolation to the next slum or village. Even if we do eventually reach a ‘just’ settlement, it would still be a gratuitous afterthought, not a matter of right. And it would be the result of months of protests in the face of consistent state brutality and arrests, buoyed by national media attention.

What is clear, though, is that there’s nothing stopping a court from casually declaring you to be an encroacher in your own home, without any examination of title. Consequently, compensation must be accepted for what it is, and remains so opaque that even a rotten colonial relic like the Land Acquisition Act seems like a step up. That is, if it’s given at all. Rehabilitation continues to be ad-hoc, and based on whatever the project donor decides. (Again, when considered necessary: while the present survey has been conducted in connection with the World Bank’s project SWEEP, it has distanced itself from the demolitions that have left 6,500 homeless).

And second, what makes this callous flippancy possible is a fundamental rot in the way we see the people who inhabit the land. As the state sees it, the responsibility of the state begins only after someone can produce a document with an official seal on it (unless it disowns it in court). But what of the others? What of those who Arundhati Roy has called the ‘shadow people’ – condemned to carving out shelter within the cracks and crevices of the city?

The state only ever sees its responsibility towards them through the windshield of a bulldozer. As if it has no responsibility to ensure they don’t end up on the other side to begin with. It sees them in the text of anti-encroachment laws, but never in Article 38(d) of the constitution, demanding that it house the homeless.

But as appealing as it may be to share a single room with eight to ten people, and to see your children fall into open sewerage lines that you, yourself, had to build, Karachi doesn’t have over 1400 slums (including the largest slum in the world) because its residents prefer minimalist living. In the face of multiple waves of refugee inflows, and a steady current of rural to urban migration Karachi’s expansion has remained unplanned; hundreds of slums remain invisible; and alternative low-cost housing is a distant dream. Gujjar and Orangi are the symptoms, not the disease.

The Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority was created in acknowledgment of this fact. As recognition of the fact that because the state had failed to give these people anything, the least it could do was not destroy what they had put together themselves. Karachi was, indeed, created by man. But it was born not of design, but of neglect.

Regularization is not a triumph; it is an admission of failure. Of course, here, even that was denied.

But for the powerful, Pakistan always finds a way. Cantonments continue to expand. City administrations tear through fruit carts to make way for parking lots. Borders are lined with sprawling estates handed out to the retired. ‘Public purpose’ under the Land Acquisition Act is bent into shapes ranging from shops turning a profit to desi-capitalist Wakandas along the river Ravi.

As long as justice is a function of the moods of men, it will be granted and denied at will.

Hence the slogan on the tip of every tongue outside the Court: “Bani Gala Bacha Diya, Gujjar nullah torr dia.” That really is what all of this boils down to. Those words are about more than one slum, one man’s house, one city, or even one institution. They are an indictment of the entire system. A system that continually reminds all those on the other side of the bulldozer that their original sin wasn’t drainage or littering or encroachment. It was poverty.

There isn’t a lease That will wash it away

The rich have a will,

So the poor must make way.

The writer is a lawyer.

Email: [email protected] edu

Twitter: @brainmasalaar