Katchi abadis: The backstage of the city

August 9, 2015

Where there are no legitimate models of affordable housing, katchi abadi becomes the only workable dwelling for low-income groups

Katchi abadis: The backstage of the city

The eviction of the Islamabad I-11 katchi abadi residents has drawn two extreme responses from the Pakistani lettered classes -- empathy and blatant contempt. The more disturbing of these has, of course, been the latter, where sentiments reinforcing the dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ abound. ‘These people are illegal; they should be thrown out,’ ‘they are criminals’, have been some typical phrases.

Contrary to what these derogatory attitudes suggest, the slum-dweller is not an innately different species. If anything, the incident and the discussions surrounding it demonstrate that the problem lies in our minds, and in our belief that the poor have a lesser right to a slice of life in the city than the ‘rest of us’.

Whether Islamabad chooses to accept it or not, the katchi abadi is the back-stage of the city; it is the entity that produces, supports, and houses the very people who are our providers, doers, and caretakers.

The katchi abadi dweller’s wife cradles his child in the same way a mother in an F-6 home does. His daughter wants to run free in a grassy playground just like the children we call ours do. The slum dweller has the same longing for lasting contentment, the same aspirations for a better future, and the same desire for a life of dignity, as the white collar worker. And most of all, however small, however deficient -- ‘home’ is a sacred sanctuary to the slum dweller, just like it is to those cushioned in the lap of luxury and security.

The following is an effort to clarify some of the resounding myths surrounding what has become the ill-famed katchi abadi of Pakistan, and its misunderstood dweller.

Shelter is a basic human right. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights declare ‘the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions’. Pakistan is a signatory to both these covenants.

Whether the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the JJ (Jhuggi Jhompri) clusters of Delhi, or the katchi abadi of Pakistan, the informal settlement is a product of government failure.

The dweller of the non-regularised katchi abadi does not live in ‘illegality’ because he wants to, nor is he by some fluke of nature inclined to ways that are below the law. The katchi abadi only becomes an option for the poor because neither the system nor the law are on their side. It is the low-income family’s housing in a country which neither understands housing to be a right, nor sees its provision as one of the duties of the State.

People do not live in katchi abadis free of cost. A katchi abadi is operated by informal sector operators who charge residents for all amenities and services provided by them, including land, electricity, water, and so on.

Pakistan has had a National Katchi Abadi Policy since 1985 that defines a katchi abadi as a settlement of 40 or more dwelling units on government land, and entitles katchi abadi residents to place a plea for regularisation leading to official land title, followed by legitimate government investment in development works, such as water and sanitation.

The legal tool for the enactment of Pakistan’s National Katchi Abadi regularisation policy, are provincial ‘acts’. The Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority (SKAA), which has the mandate of regularising and developing katchi abadis, has regularised 258 out of 564 to date in Karachi, among other cities in Sindh.

The Punjab Directorate General of Katchi Abadis was set up by LDA and has been responsible for regularisation of more than 140 katchi abadis under the Punjab Katchi Abadi Act in Lahore alone. Because Islamabad lies in the federal territory, the CDA has a ‘Katchi Abadi Cell’ and through its own policy, has recognised a small number out of the nearly 50 katchi abadis in the capital.

Also read: “The class war continues. And we will continue to fight it.” -- Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

According to international law, forced evictions, such as those carried out on the I-11 basti, are illegal. In the case that a forced eviction is deemed ‘necessary’, such as for road-widening projects or the construction of dams and other public interest developments, the law requires the State to provide due compensation and/or resettlement in the form of alternate housing.

It was in the 1960s and 1970s that research exploring the phenomenon of the informal settlement peculair to the developing world started to emerge. One of the more celebrated of these was a series of paradigm-transforming writings by British architect John F.C. Turner, in particular the book Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments.

In the late 1970s, Dutch anthropologist John van den Linden studied extensively and wrote about Karachi’s katchi abadis, concluding that these are not places to be shunned, but a parallel housing phenomenon that emerges in the absence of State-developed social housing. Pakistan’s change in government policy in the 1980s was in part a result of this new rhetoric, which gradually transformed the concept of ‘slum clearance’ to slum ‘upgrading’ and ‘improvement’.

Forced evictions are on the rise worldwide, and are currently a trend in the less developed countries, or those where the gap between the rich and the poor is vast, and where a sterile, glamorous ‘city image’ has become the development mantra. Examples include Brazil, South Africa, and India. Whether the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the JJ (Jhuggi Jhompri) clusters of Delhi, or the katchi abadi of Pakistan, the informal settlement is a product of government failure.

Take the example of the low-income migrant from Fata, who out of duress and a worsening politico-economic situation decides to migrate to the big city. He neither has the income, nor education, exposure, or wherewithal to access the formal job and housing markets. Outside of this, he is lost. It is this profile that the informal sector operator serves.

Enabled by a combination of knowhow, collusion with State actors, and opportunism, the informal sector creates a crafty system of amenity and service delivery, from guaranteed access to land and employment, to transport and credit facilities.

Another misconception to note is that the I-11 abadi known by the name ‘Afghan Basti isn’t all that Afghan after all. Out of the total of 864 families, only 141 or 16 per cent are Afghan. 47 families (or 5 per cent) are from Punjab, 324 families (or 37 per cent) are from Mohmand and Bajaur agencies of Fata, while 352 families (or 40 per cent) are from KP and Gilgit-Baltistan. Also of the weaker arguments that the I-11 eviction has been justified by, is that of criminality.

The katchi abadi is deemed a place where thieves, drug dealers, and smugglers abound. The typical katchi abadi profile is, however, no more endowed in this regard than the cross section of an upper income housing locality.

Human nature, and in particular the human instinct for survival, compels us to do the needed in the absence of viable options. Where there are no legitimate models of affordable housing, the katchi abadi becomes the only workable dwelling for a life in the city; a life the low-income citizen pursues only in his need for livelihood and the dream of a better future for his children. And it is only once the State agrees to see him as its own, and decides to take on his well-being as its own responsibility, that the poor man will be afforded his most basic right of all -- the right to dignity.

Katchi abadis: The backstage of the city