September Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

It was clearly hurried and not thought through,” says Awami Workers Party (AWP) General Secretary, Farooq Tariq, about the Capital Development Authority’s (CDA) land eviction drive against I-11 settlements in Islamabad that resulted in 800 homes being destroyed in a span of four days at the end of July.

“It’s a very class-based action,” he adds, highlighting the state’s classist double standards. “The CDA, which employs over 15,000 people, has done nothing about residential areas all over the city being converted into commercial plots by the rich and powerful, despite the fact that there are court orders against these.

“For example, there is no action against encroachments in Bani Gala. There is no action against people who have taken over the peasants’ lands. The land that was reserved for these peasants to grow vegetables for Islamabad has been taken over by humongous farm houses — such as Imran Khan’s sprawling home in Bani Gala, to name one. But the CDA has taken no time in demolishing the residences of the poor,” he claims.

On Sunday August 2, CDA completed the demolition of alleged illegal slums in I-11. The land was levelled, and debris removed, for the future “development of the area.”

AWP Information Secretary Ammar Rashid also called out the classism in the CDA’s actions, but adds that the demolition of the I-11 katchi abadi represents the confluence of various factors, aligning to yield large-scale destruction.

“Classism of course is inherent in the very structure and functioning of the CDA. In essence, the CDA is a bureaucratic institution, staffed by career administrators, which govern the capital without even a pretense of democratic representation or participation — unlike other cities with entrenched histories of electoral competition,” he says. “In the present day and age, this is quite an anachronism, especially for a capital city housing millions of people. This lack of popular accountability is reflected in the organisation’s policy and administrative decisions, which have increasingly served to protect the interests of capitalists, large property developers and the state elite.”

Rashid continues: “Public parks have been handed over to multinational companies for profit, acres of agricultural land have been indefinitely leased for non-productive private farmhouses, and exclusionary architectural monstrosities like the Centaurus mall are built without any binding environmental impact assessments. The violent enforcement of the supposed ‘law of the land,’ however, is reserved for society’s poorest, who committed the crime of building shelter for themselves.”

There is, of course, the security question as well, with the slum residents being collectively dubbed a ‘security threat’ by the interior ministry.

“The security bogey about the abadi was essentially created by Chaudhry Nisar’s Interior Ministry and speaks more of the poverty of the current government’s approach to the problem of terrorism than of terrorism itself,” says Rashid, adding that, “Instead of targeting the ideological and material infrastructure responsible for terrorist violence, the authorities are addressing the problem by collectively punishing the most vulnerable of society, pushing them deeper into poverty, and making them more susceptible to recruitment by terror groups who prey on the dispossessed.”

He maintains, “For us, it is evident that this is a case of scapegoating: katchi abadis make for soft targets that conveniently demonstrate the government’s resolve vis a vis the implementation of the supposed ‘consensus’ against terrorism, while actual terrorists continue to operate and ply their violent trade with impunity. The sheer absence of any arms recovered or terrorists arrested in the wake of the operation is testament to this fact.”

Human rights activist and columnist for The Nation, Marvi Sirmed, also notes the absurdity in allegations of terrorism being slung at the I-11 katchi abadi residents.

“The action was ordered by the High Court and depicts a general anti-poor bias of the institutions in Pakistan,” she says. “Not long ago, Imran Khan was heard on TV suggesting that the poor should not come into politics because they would indulge in corruption. The general perception about the poor is that they must be criminals, or at least dishonest etc. Every day we see this perception at play everywhere.”

Sirmed continues: “At security check points, the poor are checked with triple the intensity and lack of respect than the rich and the middle class in cars donning suits. This is pretty much what has been happening with katchi abadis or better still, informal settlements. The government should show the same haste it has demonstrated in I -11 in the case of illegal madrassas and mosques built on encroached land. But there we see a constant lull.”

Rashid claims that the impending local government elections in the capital contributed to the authorities’ decision to launch the operation. “The I-11 katchi abadi consisted of over 4,000 votes that constituted more than half the electorate for Islamabad’s Sorain union council. Several candidates from the I-11 abadi were running for the local bodies elections before they were postponed, including an entire panel that was contesting with the AWP’s support,” he says.

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“The government and CDA clearly did not wish to risk the possibility of having to be accountable — even to a limited degree — to elected working-class representatives hailing from katchi abadis they are unwilling to recognise. And in the wake of the operation, there are indications from reliable sources that the entire abadi may be removed from the electoral map in the ongoing delimitation exercise. If this happens, which is likely, it will constitute the forced disenfranchisement of the working classes in Islamabad and a denial of their right to democratic participation and the exercise of electoral accountability.” Against this backdrop, the residents of the katchi abadi are understandably devastated and feel cheated. “They keep telling us we’re all terrorists. I have 12 children to feed. Do you think I have the resources to do the things they claim we do?” says Saleem, a resident of the I-11 katchi abadi. Saleem disclosed he had his home torn down once before and had to rebuild it in the I-11 area. We are honest workers and most of us belong to the Sabzi Mandi. We are guilty only of providing you the food you eat and the things you use in your home — the very things that you have taken from us. These people with their bulldozers will never understand what it feels like to lose one’s home. We have been targeted over and over again and our homes have been destroyed — how are we the terrorists here? We are the ones being terrorised” he maintains.

Urban residents of the capital are equally shell-shocked. “You could see that the denizens of the I-11 abadi had spent every tiny minute to build their homes,” observes Mavra Rafi, an Islamabad-based mechatronics engineer. “I had been observing these mud houses for years and every time I drove by, I saw something new. It took a lot of time and effort for these people to build their houses — brick by brick. And I noted, they wasted very little. Every wire, cloth, stick that they had at their disposal was used for some purpose in something or the other. These people were using solar panels to power their tiny homes, how many of us have even tried to get solar power? This group of people knows how to survive better than most of us,” she asserts.

The claim that these residents are primarily ‘Afghan’ citizens also fuels the security paranoia, while simultaneously brewing classism and racism. “These alleged ‘illegal’ Afghans the authorities talk about are poor Pushtoon workers who run minor businesses like selling fruits and vegetables or do daily wage work,” says Tariq. “All the claims that there are Afghans, criminals or terrorists living in these bastis are still to be proven — not a single occupant was charged under any of these allegations, and yet CDA destroyed 800 homes in four days. The government just misused the anti-terrorism laws,” he adds.

Rashid asserts that the Afghan myth has been busted through various sources, including the UNHCR, multiple journalistic accounts and CDA officials themselves, with one official admitting on live television that the I-11 abadi housed mostly Pakistanis.

“The fact that the idea it was an ‘Afghan basti’ continues to persist is a monument to the dictum about how repeating a lie enough times renders it true in the popular imagination,” says Rashid, adding that, “As has been demonstrated by the sheer absence of any arms or terrorists recovered in the wake of the operation, it is clear that the claims of terrorism were also sheer propaganda designed to drum up support for the eviction drive and demonise the abadi residents.”

He continues: “Following the operation, dozens of abadi residents and activists have been arrested and thousands others nominated in FIRs under the Anti-Terrorist Act for (in the police’s own words) ‘using sticks and stones to prevent the demolition of their homes.’ This is quite evidently part of a strategy of intimidation, which includes follow-up arrests and harassment of former abadi residents to quell any potential follow-up protests.”

“Comparisons with a certain settler colony in the Middle East come rather too easily to mind. This blatant abuse of the anti-terror discourse and laws to target political activists and oppressed groups (from nationalists, to trade unionists to Left activists) really needs to be discussed and challenged at the national level. It has been happening with alarming regularity across the country from Balochistan to Gilgit-Baltistan and it is clear that this has little to do with fighting terror and everything to do with suppressing dissent and demands for state accountability.”

Sirmed says that the CDA’s contention about the I-11 residents’ Afghan roots can be traced back to the 1980s, when refugees were indeed settling in different areas inside and outside Islamabad. “They were resource-starved, absolutely informal settlements with a lack of even the most basic amenities. With the passage of time and the relocation of Afghan refugees in search of employment elsewhere in the country, the space continued to be filled in by people migrating from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and different areas of Kyber Pukhtunkhwa (KPK), especially after the devastating earthquake of 2005,” she says, adding, “The Afghans that are the ‘security problem,’ are the ones being given state protocol in areas like Barakau, part of I-10 and other posh sectors of Islamabad. One senior police officer once told me that they had given Barakau the title ‘Ilaaqa Ghair’ because it was no longer in their control, with the Taliban doing exactly what they wanted. This was in 2013. But not all Afghans are terrorists. The state must not punish the poor for its own follies.”

The question remains, if the aim of the CDA operation was to ensure that they remove the katchi abadi and get rid of the alleged criminals residing there, how will making these people even more desperate — and homeless — help?

“They are not allowing the residents of these informal settlements to go elsewhere. They stopped them entering Rawalpindi and other areas of Islamabad when they demolished the settlement in I-11,” says Sirmed. “According to one report they also made announcements in Rawalpindi forbidding people from renting their homes to these displaced residents. The authorities plan is to push them back to KP, under what law, no one knows.”

There is also the question of legality that crops up in regard to the I-11 abadi residents. “As per CDA rules, the occupants of the I-11 katchi abadi cannot be compensated because they occupied the CDA land illegally,” claimed a CDA official. But Tariq questions this claim. “Legality has many angles that we seem to ignore,” says Tariq. “When you don’t care about the working class in a city where the rich and the diplomats they serve enjoy a really comfortable life, then the poor will occupy lands to build their residences,” he asserts. “If these people are terrorists or a security threat, why have they been tolerated since 1985? By not giving these people homes to live in, certain governments have themselves sponsored illegality.”

The AWP has moved a constitutional petition in the Supreme Court regarding the eviction drive and the recognition of the constitutional right to housing. “This is necessary as the ostensible legal basis for the evictions were a series of orders to that effect by Justice Shaukat Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court. We are currently waiting for the Supreme Court to give us a date for our hearing,” says Rashid. “We also pushed for a debate and resolution on the issue in the Senate, which resulted in a unanimously-approved Senate resolution (tabled by Senators from the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party) denouncing the CDA’s operation and calling for the rehabilitation of the evictees. A sub-committee of the Senate has now been formed to investigate the issue of katchi abadis, and examine the role of CDA officials in their growth.”

The AWP has also held country-wide protests to push for the resettlement of the I-11 evictees and an end to forced evictions without resettlement. The response of the CDA and government has been predictable. “There has been a point-blank refusal to engage in any conversation about resettlement that is mandated by the National Housing Policy. The authorities have mostly been concerned with managing the PR fallout, dragging the trumped-up terror charges to court, harassing abadi residents wherever they have gone, and threatening other abadis with the same treatment,” Rashid says.

“If our efforts post-July 30 have borne any fruit, it is helping to generate the public reaction and debate that have prompted a conversation on katchi abadis and perhaps, helping prevent an immediate follow-up operation, with the government and CDA being forced to rethink their approach (though the results of their cursory reevaluation are unlikely to be transformative). However, any sustainable solution to this issue (whether it is the resettlement of the I-11 abadi, an end to evictions or the demand for low-income housing) will have to involve mainstream parties, elected representatives and state institutions, whose fundamental responsibility it is to address crises like these,” he adds.

Meanwhile, what next for the slum residents?

“As far as the people in I-11 are concerned, a humanitarian crisis is already unfolding. We have been identifying former residents in various low-income neighborhoods in and around the twin cities (such as Fauji colony, Dhok Hassu and Tarnol), and their situation is dire and deeply precarious,” reveals Rashid.

“Thousands are still living with relatives and friends for sheer lack of any affordable accommodation options. Others are living in rented homes in conditions many times worse than the katchi abadi that they had configured to their needs over the decades. The average monthly rent most are having to pay is in the range of Rs. 9,000-10,000 (for households with monthly incomes of Rs. 10,000). Most have spent whatever savings they had on one month’s rent, with little clue about where the next month’s rent is going to come from.”

Rashid continues: “Many young people working in the Sabzi Mandi are now unemployed after being forced to move an unreasonable distance to find affordable housing. Thousands of children studying in makeshift schools in the abadi are now out of school (a situation exacerbated by the near-impossibility of children of katchi abadis to get enrolled in government schools). Hundreds of people have also been deprived of the basic medical attention they were receiving through dispensaries and welfare clinics functioning around the area of the abadi. An entire community and network of relationships that served as an effective social protection mechanism for thousands has been deliberately torn apart at the seams by a state that declines to provide any meaningful social protection itself.” And the fear is that a similar pattern would be repeated in other slums.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.