Despite instances of token change, Karachi is set in its usual pall of gloom
aving braved mis-governance for decades, some residents of Karachi started pinning hopes on routine developments. For instance, many in the metropolis currently believe that the next local government elections, scheduled for January 15, will bring about a capable leadership to address their pressing issues. Spotting a few buses on some routes raises hopes of many a common folk. But despite these instances of token change, the larger picture is set in the usual pall of gloom. Underprivileged people in neighbourhoods like Mujahid Colony have already lost their abodes to a controversial anti-encroachment drive. Evictions along nullahs (natural drains) and corridors of movement are continuing unabated. As promises of rehabilitation and resettlement remain remote, most of the affected people are descending into hopelessness and despair. Viral videos of some desperate individuals resorting to suicide have shaken the residents of the city. Given the lack of counselling and psychological support for such vulnerable people, the gloom is spreading fast.
The situation is not promising on the political or administrative front either. The provincial government has made amendments in the local government statute in a bid to outfox its opponents and retain as much power and privilege in development and management issues as possible. Builders and developers were on the streets recently to protest unprecedented actions under court orders for demolition of public sale projects. In this, the builders were joined by some political parties on the grounds that thousands of people would lose abodes and resources if demolitions continued. A law is being discussed to extend protective cover to such structures. Confusion surrounds the state of affairs with no clear direction. In this context, some quarters are talking about the Greater Karachi Region Plan 2047 initiative launched by the provincial government. Experts believe that any plan that does not address the core challenges faced by the various interest groups in the city shall remain ineffective.
Many groups in Karachi have been affected by the state of governance during the recent decades and judicial actions. Residents of katchi abadis (squatter settlements), hutments and fringe dwellers are scared. The manner in which random buildings and locations have been targeted for eviction has created a lot of uncertainty. There are laws that lay down a procedure to examine the status of each and every squatter settlement before a decision is made to regularise it or order evictions. However, the status of such settlements has not been updated. Those who have already been displaced are running from pillar to post, pressing the government to come up with an alternative settlement. But the administration has failed so far to come up with a response that matches the gravity of the situation. The need for shelter is immediate. It cannot wait. The government’s choices are wide open. Land is available in several locations in the city and on its periphery. The displaced people want the political leaders to take quick decisions and actions as every minute counts towards the agony of those rendered shelter-less. In addition, informal livelihoods have to be protected, being the only option for many households already suffering on multiple counts. The timing of the so-called anti-encroachment drives appears to be extremely inappropriate. It has been pointed out that the court orders have been enforced against the weak but not the powerful. Selective justice is not what the city deserves.
Builders, developers and real estate enterprises were up in arms when a prominent building on Sharah-i-Faisal was demolished some time ago. They were found questioning the status of building permits approved and later set aside by the courts. A clean title to land, encumbrance-free building permits, transparent sales of real estate, dependable construction, compatible mortgage and financial arrangements are some of the tenets of a healthy real estate market. But for many years, clean-title land has been in short supply. Builders and developers will do well for themselves if they join the demand for a credible mechanism of urban land supply for housing and real estate development through an urban/ regional planning framework. Such a framework can only be effective if it is protected by law. It is well known that while Karachi benefitted from several urban planning outputs, none of the plans were extended a legal cover. The uncertainty helped certain vested interests. It is vital to remember that land is a precious social asset that must be accessible to all. The right to shelter is a basic human consideration that cannot be ignored. Thus, land supply arrangements for housing must also benefit the real needy and poor. If the urban poor have legitimate access to land for housing, katchi abadis will not emerge.
The provincial government cannot ignore the political situation in Karachi either. The city’s relationship with the province is very peculiar. Karachi accounts for a third of Sindh’s population. No other city in Pakistan has a similar relationship with the provincial government. It has several unique federal entities that are responsible for services like management and operation of ports. The city, which is now a greater urban region, requires an effective platform where major administrative and operational stakeholders can come together to deliberate. The provincial government should provide this platform. Various plans prepared for Karachi have advocated the need for a broad-based Karachi steering committee with a mandate to review the urban affairs and chalk out solutions. Consensus can be reached on core issues if such an effort is made in the larger interest of Karachi’s residents who deserve a better deal than what they have been offered so far.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi