Wages of poor governance
THE callous manner in which the residents of a squatter settlement in Islamabad have been evicted and the protesters booked for terrorism is the latest chapter in a long story of the state's failure to discharge its basic responsibilities to the people. Its failure to recognise the people's right to shelter results in large-scale evictions in all parts of the country.
The outrageous treatment meted out to the residents of Islamabad's I-11 katchi abadi, described as an Afghan basti possibly to blunt public sympathy for the victims, raises many questions. It is not clear whether a serious attempt was made to secure an agreement with the affected people on alternative accommodation. And why was the settlement ignored for three decades? The squatters could not have been living there without the connivance of government officials that is never available without a hefty fee. Instead of trying the protesters, it is all those who lived off the katchi abadi residents that should be punished.
The problem of katchi abadis has been with us since the morrow of independence. As the population grew and the surplus rural labour sought work in urban centres, slums started appearing on the fringes of nearly all towns and cities. As Islamabad's population increases, it too attracts a large population for a variety of jobs.
Those who take offence at ugly patches in the capital city often ignore the fact that these underprivileged citizens of Pakistan offer comfort to the occupants of vulgarly large mansions besides making a significant contribution to the country's informal economy.
The state has never managed to do its duty by those incapable of fending for themselves. Whatever may be said in defence of the CDA's ham-handed treatment of the I-11 katchi abadi, the fact is that the victims' right to shelter cannot be denied because it has a direct nexus with the right to life. All the uprooted families must be speedily rehabilitated.
The government's lack of respect for katchi abadi dwellers is also evident in the way the internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been treated over the past decade or so. Whether displacement was caused by natural disaster or by conflict, the state never managed to do its duty by the victims, most of whom were incapable of fending for themselves.
In a way, the issue of the IDPs should claim priority as they do not leave their homes by choice; they are forced to seek shelter by the fury of nature and sometimes they are asked to abandon their habitats by the state itself.
Unfortunately, the IDPs have often been treated as aliens and illegal immigrants. No lessons seem to have been learnt from the failure to manage the exodus of people from the conflict zones in Swat and more recently from Fata.
All observers agree that the IDPs do not like to stay in the officially established camps because they lack minimum essential facilities. It seems the authorities are relieved to see a majority of the displaced persons seeking shelter in rented premises or with friends/relatives. These people live in appalling conditions, up to a score of them herded in a small room. They face severe hazards to their health and the educational needs of their children are rarely met.
Perhaps the disinclination to cater to the needs of katchi abadi settlers and the IDPs stems from the state's lack of interest in developing a long-term housing expansion framework. The fact that from time to time katchi abadis have been regularised gives all slum dwellers hope of receiving similar benefits if they stay long enough at the site occupied by them.
The way slums develop not only on the outskirts of towns and cities but also in the heart of posh colonies in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad is known to all. The main factor is the state's inability to plan housing for the continuous influx of people into major cities. The cities welcome the availability of cheap labour but they are not seriously interested in providing it with proper living space.
Even the pioneering work by the Orangi Pilot Project, the Khuda Ki Basti scheme and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme to organise the underprivileged communities for acquiring decent living conditions has not moved the state authorities to work out a long-term plan to meet the fast-growing population's housing needs.
The housing backlog keeps mounting and the authorities are obsessed with the provision of modern transport and signal-free corridors for the vulgar rich. It's anyone's guess as to how long the authorities will go on building uglylooking colonies and forcing the people to live in hovels they cannot like. Is there no way to convince them that the best way to avoid the multiplication of slums is to develop land for housing colonies at state expense and let the poor build their homes, bit by bit, in accordance with their needs and tastes?