Housing in a changing world

May 15, 2022

Arif Hasan’s latest book is based on his work on land use and housing spanning half a century

Housing in a changing world


rif Hasan’s latest book, The Search for Shelter: Writings on Land and Housing, is based on his writings on land, housing and related subjects that traverse through broad time zones and contexts. It contains ten chapters, five of which focus on various issues related to Karachi. The time frame of the writings stretches from the late 1980s to the present era. Some of these writings have been published elsewhere. The author has added updates and postscripts to apprise the readers of the current situation.

Hasan has worked very extensively on land and housing issues throughout his career which spans about half a century. He was associated with Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), Urban Resource Centre, Technical Training Resource Centre, Aga Khan Development Institutions and many other organisations in various professional capacities. This volume is based on his extensive fieldwork, commissioned studies, and interactions with various communities and members of interest groups. In essence, this book becomes a useful assembly of knowledge in the domain of land and housing. The volume is an outcome of insightful analysis by the learned author of the pressing issues pertinent to land and housing and the larger process of urbanisation.

The Search for Shelter is well organised. The introduction takes us through the arrangement of contents which are topical and not chronological. A helpful glossary and key to abbreviations are provided. Several maps, illustrations and photographs enhance our understanding of the topics covered. The first chapter is a discussion on the concept of a world-class city. The contents of this section have been derived from personal experiences and observations of the author about urban centres that aspire to become world-class cities. He mentions that the classical welfare state model has weakened over time. Neoliberal influences and consequent interventions are rising in various urban contexts in South and South-East Asia. According to various narratives, global institutions such as UN agencies, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and World Trade Organisation cause enormous influence on regional and urban affairs. The world-class city agenda generally includes foreign direct investment, public-private partnerships (PPPs) and build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) arrangements. Fallouts of such investment and development patterns are discussed and analysed. Promotion and development of high-rise construction, high cost and high visibility infrastructure projects, blatant use of administrative powers to evict residents from existing settlements including clustres of vulnerable communities and removal of subsidies that aim to benefit the poor are some instances. The author extends several alternatives pertinent to this state of affairs. It includes the creation of a project appraisal framework that ensures the safeguard of ecology and environmental assets. The author also suggests mechanisms to prevent evictions and accommodate the urban poor as active participants in the development process.

The second chapter deals with the larger land and housing issues with a focus on Karachi. It critically examines the demographic profile of the city and its consequent impacts on the land and housing situation. The outcomes of regional disruptions, such as the various phases of Afghan war, are also studied as human settlement challenges to the city. The numerous dimensions, actors and factors of land supply and utilisation for various purposes are carefully analysed. Different formats of institutional (and some non-institutional) processes pertinent to land are illustrated. The chapter includes information on annual housing need, processes and options of land and housing supply alongside unmet demand. The development of the katchi abadis, their metamorphosis over time and present-day challenges are critically examined. The work of Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority (SKAA), especially its contribution to developing self-sufficiency in the rehabilitation and re-development work is also explained.

The third chapter takes us through similar terrain in Faisalabad. The chapter is based on the author’s study of the context, interviews and observations during extended fieldwork. After setting the context, the chapter unfolds the land and housing challenges experienced by the lower-middle and low-income groups. The pattern and classification of informal settlements is elaborated with insightful analysis. The emergence of slums with preconditions that caused the state of affairs is highlighted. The role and performance of various development and rehabilitation projects and programmes is discussed with cross-case analysis. The postscript provides an update on the state of affairs.

The status of Karachi’s beaches and the core challenges faced by its various communities over time are documented. The role of several federal agencies having jurisdiction in parts of Karachi’s coastline is put in context. Hasan presents several case studies that help one understand the dynamics of initiatives that led to major investment schemes. At one point the islands next to Karachi were made part of commercial deals undertaken to raise capital and dividends for investors at the cost of ecological assets, coastal-marine environment and public access to seafront recreation. Attempts were made to dislodge poor street vendors and hawkers from earning a livelihood along the coastline. Political turbulence prevented some of these initiatives from becoming fully operational.

The creation, working and impact of Urban Resource Centre (URC) projects has been explained. The URC was founded in 1989 by certain recent graduates, teachers and affiliates of the Department of Architecture and Planning at the Dawood Engineering College in Karachi. It has done useful work in many domains of the city’s urban life. Documentation of urban change, advocacy in assistance of vulnerable communities, lobbying and networking to prevent evictions, preparation and promotion of development alternatives, technical assistance to marginalised communities, holding of regular forums around topics of common interest, compilation, promotion and publication of various studies are mentioned.

Arif Hasan, who for many years has been one of the key figures managing and guiding URC’s conduct, has provided a dispassionate account of the Centre’s work and a sharp analysis of its current performance and future direction. One of the long-running campaigns that the URC and its development partners have undertaken has been the construction of Lyari Expressway. Its planning, design and construction were criticised by many public-spirited citizens and professionals. It was feared that thousands of people will be evicted without proper compensation and the social life of an ever-greater number will be impacted. The URC and its affiliates offered planning and design alternatives to prevent evictions and reduce costs. However, the government authorities did not agree with the URC analysis. More than fifteen years on, the outcomes have validated the URC concerns.

The book contains chapters on social housing in the UK, insights from Central Asian countries and feedback from a rental housing trust in Sylhet, Bangladesh. It provides original transcripts of conversations with actual actors in housing and land supply in Karachi and elsewhere. It provides useful insights into different issues pertinent to housing. An essay on the future prospects of housing access for the poor may have been a very useful addition. Given the fact that neo-liberal doctrines and practices have turned land into a tradable commodity, making it accessible to the poor has become even more challenging than before. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in learning about land use and housing in this fast-changing world.

   The Search for Shelter:

Writings on Land and Housing

Author: Arif Hasan

Publisher: Oxford University Press, Karachi

Pages: 244

Price: Rs 895

The reviewer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi    

Housing in a changing world