Life in katchi abadis (squatter settlements) in Karachi is full of unprecedented dangers. In the Gulshan-e-Ghazi-Baldia Town Karachi, five people of a household were killed due to a landslide in that tragedy on April 06, 2017. The vulnerabilities of the most ordinary were exposed.
This is not the only incident in recent times. A few months ago, a family in Gulistan-e-Jauhar in Karachi was buried alive in a landslide. Apart from accidents, many other issues continue to affect katchi abadi dwellers that constitute about half of city’s population. The poor live in squatters — even dangerous locations — due to unavailability of housing.
In October 2016, the Sindh Chief Minister announced upgrading the status of 100 katchi abadis in the province to the level of township. Other issues of 1409 katchi abadis of the province were also discussed. Little progress has been observed on this count. On many occasions, government functionaries have issued conflicting statements about the fate of katchi abadis.
According to one point of view, katchi abadis are eyesores for urban dwellers and must be demolished. This view is now commonly shared by power wielders in urban Sindh who do not favour in-migration from other areas, particularly Khyber Pakhtunkwa. Developers and builders want high-density high rise development on the site of katchi abadis.
Yet another opinion focuses on the gradual shifting of katchi abadis to sub-urban locations where they are not a burden on the urban infrastructure and services. An objective assessment of this sector informs us that each of these viewpoints is flawed and is not based on realistic appraisal of basic facts.
Katchi abadis, in essence, are a response to the successively failing attempts of state institutions towards providing housing for low-income people. Absence of choices to live and work in large and medium-sized cities left the poor with no option but to build a shelter on any available land.
It is interesting to note when Pakistan came into being and millions of newcomers from various parts of the Subcontinent opted for urban housing choices, the resulting settlements were not termed as katchi abadis despite the otherwise shabby appearance of the abodes of settlers. True, the government provided several schemes for rehabilitation, but they were not commensurate with the load of refugees that was searching for a basic option to reside.
Economic compulsions forced millions of inhabitants from different locations of the country move towards cities that offered employment in industrial enterprises. State institutions, especially under martial law regimes, never responded to the acute problems of housing faced by the new urban citizens. Left helpless, they had to no choice except to help them, albeit in a disorganised manner.
Haphazard squatter settlements sprang up in different locations of cities. Karachi was fortunate as it had abundant reserves of state lands. The government initially attempted to bulldoze settlements but soon realised that it was an impossible task. Thereafter, it allowed people to settle down at will.
The process became sophisticated with the passage of time. Learning from the evidences of planned settlements, katchi abadis adopted the pattern of grid iron rectilinear layouts. Once the favourable locations were saturated, the vulnerable locations were also swarmed by the desperate settlers. The phenomenon has continued with varying intensities and adjustments in the process and outcomes.
The problem needs a dispassionate analysis. Cities are places inhabited by all types of income groups. Cities that take care of only the rich and affluent are bound to fail. Healthy cities are those where the poor have decent access to basic amenities of life. It is disappointing to note that governments have not given enough importance to this very significant issue of housing.
For example, the government of prime minister Muhammad Khan Junejo had announced March 23, 1985 as the cut-off date for regularisation of katchi abadis. Later, the date was extended to June 30, 1997. The idea was to survey the katchi abadis for the merit of their existence and grant legal ownership, services and amenities to settlers. It was also assumed that making of new katchi abadis will be accommodated in the newly-announced five marla and three marla housing progammes, which were the state responses to housing needs in those times.
However, poor delivery mechanisms did not allow a majority of the poor to benefit from these approaches of land distribution. Incompatibility of procedures adopted in such schemes favoured the rich and powerful to transform them into speculative enterprises. Delayed occupancy, locational disadvantages, cumbersome paper work, high prices, uncertain distribution of land and corruption were some of the reasons that led to the failures of public housing schemes in the cities.
That Karachi has more than half of its population residing in katchi abadis and an inventory of more than 300,000 vacant residential plots is a proof of blatant contradictions in the housing scenario.
It is often claimed that the poor need subsidies in the housing sector which the state can no longer provide. This is not a veritable fact. The poor pay for every service where they dwell, though to the informal sector. Housing is acquired through payments to illegal entrepreneurs, building material providers and contractors. Security is ensured by paying money to musclemen. Water is acquired on high costs from vendors. In most cases, the poor end up paying more than the middle or upper income groups. The state, though aware, does not assign these issues a priority for early solution.
Several steps need to be taken. Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority, in consultation with municipalities in Sindh, must undertake an assessment of katchi abadis which exist on dangerous locations. A voluntary resettlement must be worked out after negotiating the terms with respective target groups. A housing need-assessment survey must be carried out for urban areas.
Updated information from the ongoing census must make the baseline for undertaking this useful step for the betterment of squatter dwellers. The need assessment shall inform our decision-makers about the scale and characteristics of housing requirements, especially for the poor and low-income groups. Concurrently, a land management study must be done to examine the availability of land for housing the low-income groups.
Modified delivery mechanisms, such as incremental housing development approach, should be adopted. It shall ensure eradication of speculation and corruption around it. Housing credit packages must be developed. Without proper means, appropriate housing cannot be developed. Experiences in banking have shown that it is not the poor who default on loans. The housing choices, when generated according to solid preferences and affordability status, succeed in meeting the stipulated objectives.