By I. A . Rehman ( 18 February 2016)
BY announcing government plans to legalise some of the illegally established housing colonies in the capital city, the federal minister of state for Islamabad`s development has provided an opportunity for a discussion on the mess in the country`s housing sector.
That the 109 or so housing colonies in Islamabad that have been declared unauthorised/illegal by the Capital Development Authority (CDA) should be regularised is quite understandable. Quite a few of the people living in these colonies have considerable political clout, some of the colonies are large and fully developed areas, many have existed for more than two decades, and the residents, by and large, are not poor. Thus, these colonies should receive legal cover as soon as possible.
The minister has said nothing about the government`s policy about the katchi abadis in Islamabad. Apparently, there is no change of heart on the ordeal of the families that were made homeless last June when their settlement in I-11 sector was bulldozed in an inhuman display of brute power. Obviously, CDA has not shed its bias against the poor that deprives the latter of the benefit of the policy of legalising housing colonies built by the well-to-do without completing the necessary formalities.
The problem is not confined to Islamabad. In all major cities and towns the slum dwellers are victims of the state`s failure to devise a long-term settlement plan for the hordes of poor citizens seeking living space in cities so as to be able to serve the diverse needs of the privileged residents. They include vendors of vegetables, eateries, household goods, and plumbers, cobblers, cooks, guards, maids, etc.
They are allowed to set up jhuggis because the community needs cheap labour and they are a source of income for the local police and the city bureaucracy. The authorities overlook the ugly spots till they decide to allot plots to more resourceful people and the katchi abadis are razed to the ground.
Some conscious societies have recognised theemergence of slums in cities as an inevitable part of urbanisation and have tried to reduce the human cost of the process. In many big cities of Asia, the civic authorities do not hesitate to provide basic amenities, including water and electricity supply, sewerage and health facilities, in unauthorised settlements.
India devised a plan to oblige metropolitan authorities to earmark land for allotment to people displaced during slum clearance campaigns.
However, the class-conscious administrator made sure the scheme did not succeed. The plots offered to the slum evictees were so far away from their places of work that they could not afford to live there. Then the size of the plot for each family was drastically reduced and the rehabilitation of slum dwellers became a cruel joke.
In Pakistan, the plight of the people displaced as a consequence of slum clearance or the so-called development plans is generally dismissed with contempt. The large-scale eviction of people in Lahore from their traditional abodes, for a transportation scheme that no sane person can defend, constitutes an unprecedented and unparalleled abuse of state power in the country`s history.
What is happening today in Lahore or Islamabad is the result of the state`s progressive abandonment of its duty to respect the citizens` right to housing.
There was a time when the authors of Five-Year Plans took specific notice of the shortage of housing units in the country and their removal was duly accepted as the state`s responsibility. Today the housing needs of the people, especially of the underprivileged, figure only in official propaganda.
The subject is no longer considered worth discussing in the Economic Survey. The Punjab government did go beyond rhetoric with its plans for low-cost housing but one should like to reserve judgement on these initiatives until their independent evaluation is available.
Three factors have aggravated the misery of those without homes, especially the disadvantaged sec-tions. First, the state has excluded the right to shelter from its concerns. This is amply evident in the failure to adopt a reasonable housing policy and indifference to the need for long-term perspective plans for both urban centres and rural villages.
Secondly, the state has encouraged speculation in land transactions. Instead of freezing land prices or at least checking the sharp increases in prices, the civic administrations contribute to speculation by continually raising the prices of land in their housing colonies. This is now one of their main sources of revenue.
Thirdly, the state has failed to check the privileged estate developers` designs for luxury housing on prohibitively large plots, as if there is no shortage of land in the vicinity of cities and towns.
The state is thus a party to the building of palaces for the neo-rich, a luxury this poor nation cannot afford. Nor can it allow good cultivable land being gobbled up by all kinds of operators. The havoc caused by the free for all in this sector can be seen in the large number of flats in Karachi that have been waiting for buyers for years and in the large tracts of land around Lahore appropriated by housing societies that will take decades to complete.
It is certainly time the state paid due attention to the people`s right to housing. Urgency needs to be attached to the adoption of a fair and workable housing policy, regulation of land prices, especially around big cities, preparation of a just scheme of slum clearance, restrictions on the plot size everywhere, and due recognition of the rights of evictees when their displacement can be justified in the best interest of the community.
A country that does not respect the legacy of Akhtar Hamid Khan in urban planning and does not listen to his successors, which can neither protect Perween Rehman against the murderous designs of land grabbers nor has the will to punish her killers, should be prepared to be indicted for denying its citizens their fundamental right to shelter.