The Punjab chief minister’s call for regularisation of katchi abadis is a welcome move, but it is crucial to point out that the key challenge here is the growing problem of adequate housing which will only grow bigger in the years to come
The ever increasing demand for housing is driving the mushroom growth of informal settlements, also known as squatter settlements or, in local lingo, katchi abadis. According to a UN Habitat report, more than 50 percent of the population of major cities in Pakistan lives in slums and squatter settlements, facing a range of problems including legal and ownerships issues, lack of formal infrastructure and increasing public health challenges due to poor waste management and sanitation services.
Recently, the chief minister of Punjab, Sardar Usman Buzdar, reviewed proposals to regularise katchi abadis in the province. In this connection, the Directorate General of Katchi Abadis and Urban Improvement, which is part of the Local Government and Rural Development Department, suggested a few amendments to the Punjab Katchi Abadis (Amendment) Act of 2012.
The Act lays out criteria such as the existence of at least 40 dwelling units for a settlement to be considered for regularisation; surveys by the district and town administrations; and an evaluation of revenue records and aks shajra of occupied land. The act also lays out the process of granting proprietary rights to dwellers, collection of development costs and land charges; and sets an important precedent by granting equal proprietary rights to husband and wife (or wives).
The directorate, which is responsible for all policy matters besides implementing regularisation schemes for existing settlements, carrying out on-site verifications, recovering the cost of land and development charges, and processing cases for proprietary rights, proposed that the living conditions for the residents be improved. It also suggested eradication of encroachments and preventing illegal occupation of land. The first proposal calls for a revision of the requirement of dwelling units in rural areas to 20; the requirement for urban katchi abadis shall remain the same (40 units).
The directorate also proposed an open auction of commercial areas in katchi abadis and the formulation of a new policy for land with potential for commercial use.
Since the surveys of settlements carried out under the 2012 Act lacked data on women, which has hampered the transfer of proprietary rights to women, the directorate proposed that this issue be addressed by requiring submission of nikah namas, or legal undertakings for transfer of ownership.
The fourth and final proposal calls for revising the land and development costs, which were initially tied to the current valuation of surrounding areas, under the 2012 Act, and which created a major hurdle for regularisation of katchi abadis in areas with higher land prices, leading the dwellers to avoid and actively evade any efforts for pursuing or even applying for proprietary rights.
The directorate has now proposed that 2 percent of the valuation rate (or prevailing DC rate) in urban areas be applied to all new and existing katchi abadis for equitable and non-discriminatory access to housing across the board. These proposals have been sent by the CM’s office to the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Legislative Business for final decision and recommendations.
While the initiative is a welcome move, it is crucial to point out that the key challenge here isn’t the regularisation of katchi abadis; rather, it is the growing problem of adequate housing which will only grow in the years to come.
Pakistan has an urban population growth rate of nearly 2.6 percent. The housing deficit has nearly doubled over a period of 17 years, creating a pressing need to revisit the urban development policies and plans throughout the country. The gap between the demand and supply for housing, coupled with low affordability and increasing expenses in urban areas creates a multi-faceted challenge that hampers equity, growth, and sustainability. A vicious cycle of poverty that drives rural folk to cities in search of economic opportunities then forces them to occupy whatever land is available and accessible; often without proper shelter or infrastructure. This not only creates legal problems but also dissociates slum dwellers from community and municipal activities, whilst creating additional challenges for public health, law and order, and disaster management.
Adequate housing does not mean handing people keys to flats: it requires legality and security of tenure; availability of basic facilities and infrastructure including electricity and sanitation; and ease of access along with affordability.
The traditional approach of pretending that a problem doesn’t exist until it is too big to ignore needs to be replaced with a proactive approach. Indeed, this age-old approach effectively promotes illegal encroachments on state and private land, with regularisation schemes serving as little more than a band aid long after the damage has already been done.
The result of these policy failures is that most urban dwellers, particularly in low income neighbourhoods, bypass the formal system completely. Urbanisation instead happens through informal settlement, without legal recognition, planning, or any formal service provision. The effects of unplanned, informal settlement are long-lasting. Retrofitting large-scale infrastructure after settlement has occurred can be three times more expensive than investing beforehand, and is almost impossible on a large scale without resettlement or displacement.
There is an urgent need to create an enabling policy environment, one where urban planners, sociologists, and public figures focus on updating regulatory frameworks and policies prepared decades ago when few slums existed. So far, urban development regulations and bylaws have largely ignored the existence of the very word “slum.” Acknowledging their existence and integrating them in the broader urban development plans in the only way to enact long term, sustainable change.
Another key element is the lack of official data on low-income neighbourhoods, leading to faulty conclusions about urban conditions and, consequently, the development of poorly suited urban policies.
Understandably, budgetary allocations and planning based on flawed figures exacerbate urban challenges. Effective policymaking for slum dwellers must appreciate the wide range of living conditions and priorities. Food, access to healthcare, and protection from harsh weather are a priority before participation in schooling or taking loans to start ambitious entrepreneurial journeys can even be considered.
Where informal settlements have already been established, policy options are extremely limited. However, successful examples from Karachi can serve as a model throughout Pakistan. For instance, an initiative to create secure housing foundations for small plots has enabled owners to upgrade their properties to multi-storey buildings through a self-help model. With a whopping population density of over 2,800 people per hectare (twice that of Manhattan, New York, at the time of project completion), this success story of urban development serves a practical, cost-effective way out for affordable housing.
Moreover, a participatory model for sanitation led by the communities in Karachi has dramatically improved key health markers, including reducing infant mortality in informal settlements.
Upgrading and improving the living and working conditions in katchi abadis can be an effective solution instead of expensive relocation, re-establishment of infrastructure, and provision of new methods for accessibility to residents. This can apply to both physical capital (housing investments) and social capital (community ties, local associations) and economic growth facilitated by local support networks.
Over time, if the administration invests in complementary infrastructure, public services and land regularisation, informal settlements can transform into vibrant formal neighbourhoods which will contribute to growth and development. Land tenure regularisation, in particular, must be prioritised to enable secure investment in properties, access urban infrastructure, contribute to the cost of municipal and utility services and join the country’s tax net.
The writer is a development sector professional with nearly a decade of experience in communications and reporting. He has supported the implementation of the World Bank’s Disaster and Climate Resilience Improvement Project (DCRIP) and the Asian Development Bank’s Flood Emergency Reconstruction and Resilience Project (FERRP) in Pakistan