COVID-19 and informal settlements

Dignified and safe housing is an ideal to aspire to in keeping with the UN Housing rapporteur’s assessment

Covid-19 has laid bare the inequalities embedded in social systems around the world. It has also unravelled many of the assumptions the pre-Covid world had rested upon. These include the idea that governments can provide for citizens even without a robust welfare framework and that policy interventions can work even when they are not participative or consultative. It has also provided a unique opportunity for reflection at individual as wells as collective levels.

One focal area for such reflection is the case of informal settlements in Pakistan and the precariousness of the situation of their residents. This piece attempts to draw attention to the plight of informal settlements, particularly in the midst of a pandemic and make a case for looking at adequate housing as a fundamental right. The right needs to be prioritised in times of crisis and beyond.

Recent scholarship by Karachi Urban Lab aptly describes the pandemic as an urban crisis. This can only be understood by unpacking the reality of income inequality and acknowledging the localised nature of informality and housing in Pakistan.

For starters, it is important to acknowledge that Pakistan has a housing crisis of epic proportions, accounted for by factors, such as population density, housing unaffordability and migration patterns.

The intensity of the crisis can be gauged through some astounding statistics provided by Ammar Rashid in his article, Will PTI’s Housing Programme Address the Root Causes of the Housing Crisis, (Dawn March 23, 2019) where he writes that 99 percent of the formal housing market in Pakistan is beyond the buying reach of 68 percent of the population, which means the informal housing market is the only viable alternative left for them.

The informal settlements that emerge from this predicament are plagued with problems that are common to such settlements in the global south. They range from inadequate access to water and sanitation — a crucial component in combatting Covid-19 - to crowding and multi-generation households often including members with chronic illnesses.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, Leilani Farha, has identified informal settlements as particularly vulnerable during this pandemic and laid down what a state must do as a bare minimum to ensure safety of its citizens. These measures include a ban on evictions, equal access to testing and considering using vacant units to house those living in grossly inadequate settlements.

It is no surprise that areas like Lyari have emerged as hotspots of Covid-19… [Covid-19] hotspots in more affluent areas of the city are still not as heavily policed as the low-income neighbourhoods.

However, the brutal and swift demolition of 75 huts in a G-11 slum, housing mostly day labourers, has taken place during the lockdown in the federal capital. As a concession to public outrage the government has promised an inquiry into the matter and arrangements for those left homeless. This begs the question as to why informal settlements are treated so callously in the first place?

There is a need to reframe the lens through which we view shelter, and to reiterate the human right to adequate housing embedded in the international law. This can perhaps be thought of as part of the wider ‘right to city’ as espoused by David Harvey. He has argued that we must move towards conceptualising the right to the city as a collective right. This means a right, which must be staked by the people by holding the state accountable. This is to be done through dialogue and participation by citizens.

He also posits that urbanisation has always been a class phenomenon. This is apparent in how the effects of a public health emergency are being felt across areas with different income levels.

For instance, it is no surprise that areas like Lyari have emerged as hotspots of Covid-19. It is also unsurprising that hotspots that emerge in more affluent areas of the city are still not as heavily policed as low-income neighbourhoods.

One of the most insightful formulations of the phenomena of housing, by the anarchist architect John Turner as cited in Mike Davis’s Planet of the Slums, is to think of housing as a verb. The “urban poor have to solve a complex equation as they try to optimise housing cost, tenure security, quality of shelter, journey to work and personal security”.

There is a need to move away from a system under which the onus to aggressively negotiate what is their right is on citizens. Provision of housing needs to be seen as a fundamental duty of the state and its absence a clear failure. The right to adequate housing is acknowledged in international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has emphasised that the right to adequate housing should be interpreted broadly to include the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity. Dignity of space is thus central to adequate housing.

This criterion must apply to informal settlements too. This may mean undertaking upgrades in the settlements or thoughtful re-location in view of residents’ needs. There needs to be a recognition that adequacy of housing includes regard for dignity. This means, for example, that adequate housing provides for privacy and residents do not need to queue up for hours at a communal toilet.

This also means that the housing doesn’t require the residents to walk miles to access to water. This also means security of tenure so that people do not have to beg officials to not raze their homes. This also means housing that does not make you a high-risk person whenever a public health emergency arises.

Dignified housing is an ideal to aspire to and move towards in keeping with the UN housing rapporteur’s assessment. All necessary efforts must be undertaken to ensure that informal settlements, which are precarious and vulnerable at best, are saved from total collapse.

Thus, while aspirational in nature, it is a goal to work towards. The state must affirm that it is responsible for and accountable to people.

Covid-19 mapping of vulnerabilities to identify the segments of the society to target for relief has been stressed as the need of the hour. Informal settlements serve as ideal zones of such inquiry. A critical way to address the realities of informal settlements is through targetted work with their inhabitants. Documenting their lived reality is the first step towards making sure policies are consultative and provide protection if another crisis of epic proportions, such as the pandemic, emerges at a later stage. Such work can dispel the idea that these settlements are ‘encroachments’, a glaring example of popular anti-poor rhetoric.

The writer is a lawyer working as a researcher, interested in cities, gender and the law

COVID-19 pandemic and informal settlements