Friday July 19, 2024

Housing for the dispossessed

By Zaffar Junejo
September 08, 2022

The unprecedented floods in Pakistan, especially in Sindh, have damaged rural houses in the flooded areas. No systematic survey has been conducted so far to assess the extent of losses and damage.

Media reports, videos uploaded on various digital forums and statements by the Sindh government confirm that in 24 districts of Sindh, almost all rural houses have either collapsed or developed cracks. Even though easy-to-assemble shelters offer a quick solution in the present situation, they are not a permanent solution.

The Sindh government has planned to launch a rural housing policy, which is indeed good news. But I am a bit hesitant about the relevancy of the proposed scheme and fear it to be too technical, urban-centred, financially intensive, and beyond the demand of rural settlements.

Consider the example of the 2010 floods. Experience tells that a majority of migrants from flood-affected areas left camps and went back to their villages. It is a well-proven fact that flood victims return to their homes as soon as the water recedes. This happens because the livelihood of people (agriculture lands, petty government jobs, and small businesses) acts as a pull factor. Also, ancestors’ graveyards, local shrines, village festivals, easy-going rural life, and supportive social nets compel them to return. However, inadaptable camp life, unmatched skills to get employment in cities and emotionally dry urban attitude work as ‘push factors’.

In the last super flood, when the water lowered, people almost immediately went to their homes. This time, however, their return will take more time, because the scale and damage of the present floods is more intense than that of the 2010 floods.

We should not forget that people have a set of priorities post emergency. One of them is to adopt a no-wait strategy where the affectees do not wait for expert advice or government plans. It can be safely assumed that soon after their return, the flood-affected people will start repairing and reconstructing their houses from whatever has been left behind – debris, bricks, tin- and iron-made windows, doors, etc. The government should come up with a rural housing scheme on a war footing, ideally before the return of the flood victims to their homes.

Here I would like to propose some broader contours of the scheme. Human settlements are shaped by geographical contours, rivers, lakes, springs, natural waterways, seas and deserts and types of soils. The same principle also applies to Sindh. One cannot deny the role of the Kirthar Mountains, riverine forests, lakes, the Rann of Kutch and the Indus River in shaping human settlements in Sindh. Their conditional role is natural, and it has continued from time immemorial.

Huge engineering projects are another conditioning factor. After Sindh’s annexation, British colonizers stared some gigantic projects like railways, construction of barrages, embankments and bridges and a network of roads in the province. Consequently, human settlements were reshaped. These changes are generally noted as a rise in population, internal migration, formation of new villages and added and altered cropping patterns.

Pre-British and post-British maps of Sindh show two realities. The pre-British image shows that settlements were around lakes, natural waterways, depressions, river ports, and around/in active area of the Indus delta. However, the post-British image shows human settlements’ concentration around railway stations, canals, railway tracks and road junctions. These are two broad categories of Sindh’s rural settlements. Both have different sets of livelihood and social relations; therefore, the housing needs of them are incompatible with each other. Thus, a general rural housing scheme will not serve the collective needs of both settlements.

Both settlements have different housing needs. For instance, there are some pre-British human settlements on the banks of the River Indus or close to riverine forests, around the Kirthar range, and in and around the active Indus delta and lakes - Manchar, Hamal, Shakoor and Keenjhar – and in some isolated patches of Thar and Kohistan. These villages are still somehow linked with their micro-ecology. The proposed housing scheme should integrate these villages with their local ecologies in reciprocal ways. This scheme must ensure that their existing relationship with nature and natural resources is not disturbed.

The post-British image confirms that human settlements flourished in and around the command areas of Sukkur, Guddu and Kotri barrages and around some towns and cities. However, in those areas, due to natural waterways of the River Indus and inundations human settlements already existed. These projects forced people to form new human settlements and also resulted in the population increase of old villages due to migration from nearby villages.

Interestingly, these villages gradually broke their links with natural waterways, forests and lakes, and, over time, they converted local depressions and small lakes into agriculture fields or dumping pits. Presently, these villages are mostly dependent on local markets and towns. Their earning sources are mixed, rather than solely dependent on agriculture.

Considering this newly emerged reality, it is suggested that the proposed scheme must cater to their needs. The broader needs of these villages are cluster-based storage facilities, seed banks, nodal markets, maternity homes, link roads, and wider culverts (so that tractors etc could cross it), credit banks and internet facilities.

Since the 1950s, the creation of industrial estates in various areas of Sindh has also affected villages in their catchment areas and converted them into slums. Social, cultural and economic links of these villages with traditional sources were cut, and inhabitants instantly became aliens even in their own environments. Today, most of them are engaged as non-skilled labourers with women working as house help in adjacent colonies.

These villages are located in Tando Adam, Kotri, Sukkur, Hyderabad, Karachi and other industrial areas. These settlements should be upgraded to the level of modern colonies with communal structures and services such as markets, bus stands, town halls, libraries, hospitals, and telecommunication facilities.

These suggestions are relevant to all types of villages, irrespective of their nature or history. A majority of rural people live or operate under traditional influences. The new housing designs must accommodate both communal and private life. It should ensure women’s mobility in all seasons and occasions. Also, village streets should be wider with spacious junctions which could be converted into public places with the help of additional civil work including platforms, cemented benches and plantation.

The scale of damages demands urgency. The Sindh government must come up with a comprehensive plan on an urgent basis. The speed should be an indicator of the proposed scheme. It should be so, because rural Sindh’s economy is already slow, and per capita income has declined. Both of these factors may halt the momentum of construction work.

Other slowing factors could be unavailability of construction materials, dearth of skilled workers and damaged infrastructure. It must be noted that affected people are not in a position to address this massive scale of destruction on their own. However, an ill-designed policy along with inaction will also add to the suffering of the dispossessed and marginalized.

The writer has a PhD in History from the University of Malaya and is a development

practitioner. He can be reached at: