Karachi — housing without a future?

More than 60 percent of Karachi’s population lives in katchi abadis or informal settlements

Photo credit: Arsam Saleem - Research Associate KUL

When Ilyas Goth, a settlement of 150 to 200 jhuggies near Teen Hatti, was ablaze on the night of January 21, distressing videos of the entire area on fire went viral on the social media with people expressing grief, sympathy and horror. Some went as far as to call on the government to expedite help and rescue operations.

Photo credit: Arsam Saleem - Research Associate KUL

While these feelings might have been heartfelt and sincere, they seemed to miss the point; this tragedy was not borne out of a mistake or simple circumstance, but is rather part of a larger recurring trend in Karachi’s urban housing landscape. Any possible solutions then need to first interrogate the historical context of similar incidents in Karachi, before advocating reforms that are both substantive and broad.

Formal housing in Karachi has been a highly coveted but largely unavailable commodity for decades now. As early as 1978, 55 percent of the city’s population was already living in katchi abadis and slums because the city government simply could not keep up with the housing demand of incoming migrants. Even today, according to a report titled, Pakistan’s Urban Issues published by Arif Hasan, more than 60 percent of Karachi’s population lives in katchi abadis or informal settlements. By numbers alone, this is in fact Karachi’s vast majority.

According to statistics, the yearly demand for formal urban housing all over Pakistan is 350,000 units, while the actual supply lags at a mere 150,000 units built. This discrepancy in housing supply and demand has existed for decades now and building katchi abadis or informal settlements is one of the major ways citizens make up for the difference. Even all katchi abadis themselves should not simply be grouped together since they exist on a wide scale, from settlements with well-built, reinforced cement-concrete (RCC) structures which pay for and source their amenities from the municipal government, to settlements with semi-permanent houses made from simple plaster and concrete, which may or may not have access to amenities, and finally to communities which consist of simple shacks with no access to resources, typically called jhuggies, made out of cloth, wood, plastics and other easily scavenged materials, like Ilyas Goth.

Ilyas Goth is a relatively new jhuggi settlement, which was re-built just 14 years ago after the original settlement was decimated during the construction of the Lyari Expressway and is almost entirely populated by those dispossessed people.

Specifically, three different communities are living in Ilyas Goth: around 150 families of Marvari Rajput Hindus who work as florists and have lived besides the Lyari River for nearly 25 years, 25 families of Bagri Hindus who sell fish at the Dakh Khana Market and moved into the settlement from Mirpurkhas following the flash floods of 2010 wrought by climate change, and finally a few Muslim families that have migrated to Karachi from various parts of Sindh, looking for better jobs and infrastructure.

Ironically, one of the justifications given by the National Highway Authority for demolishing the original Ilyas Goth, among several other settlements all over Karachi, was that the annual flooding of the Lyari river was a threat to those living nearby and that they had to be resettled elsewhere. Yet, this promise of resettlement was left unfulfilled for many thousands of displaced families all over Karachi and pushed all those people into living in katchi abadis and jhuggies, which are even more vulnerable to environmental hazards like the fire that engulfed Ilyas Goth.

Yet, Ilyas Goth is not exceptional in the tragedy it has faced; data from the Urban Resource Centre, which has collected news clippings of such fires in Karachi’s urban slums from January 1997 till January 2010, show that a total of 2,704 housing structures have been reduced to ashes over this period, rendering more than 17,846 people homeless and leading to the death of 35 adults and 50 minors.

Most jhuggies are made from easily scavenged materials such as cheap plastic or cloth that are piled atop simple bamboo or wooden structures. Hence, they are quite flammable and also too weak to stand extreme weather.

These are the basest of damages which do not even account for the severe physical and emotional trauma survivors need to cope with, and loss of assets and livelihoods sustained during the fires. Admittedly, not all these incidents were entirely natural; many documented cases have shown that sometimes jhuggies are victims of arson in attempts to claim land or resources, but the precarious nature of these dwellings is still worrisome.

Add to this the fact that the Karachi Municipal Corporation seems seriously under-equipped to deal with fire outbreaks; with just 22 fire stations spread across Karachi which is a tenth of the recommended 1 fire station per 100,000 population standard.

Most jhuggies are made from easily scavenged materials such as cheap plastic or cloth that are piled atop simple bamboo or wooden structures. Hence, they are quite flammable and also too weak to stand extreme weather (such as heavy rains, heatwaves or biting cold spells, which themselves are becoming increasingly deadlier due to climate change.)

Photo credit: Arsam Saleem - Research Associate KUL

The government’s response to these tragedies has been lacklustre, to say the least. On-ground relief has been limited to offering families new sheets, clothes and food for the victims. In fact, residents of Ilyas Goth say that the government’s relief effort was matched by NGOs like the JDC Welfare Organisation and the Seylani Welfare Trust, who also chipped in with similar donated materials. There still exists no comprehensive plan or policy to tackle the question of climate vulnerability faced by similar existing and future settlements that are spread all over Karachi.

The question that we should then ask is what are the possible futures of land, housing and the people of Karachi under the shadow of worsening climate change? And Ilyas Goth emerges as an interesting site to consider these questions because it is demonstrative of the complex nature of all these components.

Gaining rights to land, and housing by extension, remains a highly contentious process which has remained inaccessible to most Karachiites for decades now and has pushed scores of people into vulnerable informal housing arrangements.

This process of disenfranchisement is then exacerbated by development projects in Karachi, such as the Lyari Expressway and the Karachi Circular Railway, which sometimes destroy even those informal arrangements and push people into further precarity. This then becomes a cycle of repeated dispossession; first by climate induced natural disasters, then evictions by brutal planning regimes, leading to a lack of resources, increasing susceptibility to climate again, each iteration compounding their vulnerability.

Housing is set to become an ever rarer commodity with each passing day, and more and more people will be pushed into buying land or houses that are environmentally unsound.

While today, most people of Karachi live in various forms of informal settlements, some more infrastructurally sound than others, these trends indicate that future housing practices might be even worse. This is a problem not just for some poor and disenfranchised pockets of the city’s populace but will become our common bane. Our future is only going to be as strong as the foundations of the houses it is built on, and as of right now, it’s hard to have faith in them.

The writers are urban planners and researchers at the Karachi Urban Lab, IBA

Karachi — housing without a future?: More than 60 percent of Karachi’s population lives in katchi abadis or informal settlements