September Issue 2019

By | Newsline Special | Published 1 month ago

In the wake of the Supreme Court decisions regarding the removal of ‘encroachments’ from the old city and from the Right of Way (RoW) of the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR), this troublesome urban development issue in Karachi was highlighted. A number of views and concerns were raised from within civil society, the government and other relevant stakeholders. They touched on a variety of interfacing constructs attached to this phenomenon – social, political, legal, and environmental to name the more obvious ones. Poor-friendly planning has never been a priority in this city and it has a growing profile of urban inequity. So, while what happened at Empress Market and what is presently happening along the KCR RoW is deeply disturbing, it is not something new within the historical context of the city. It will not be the last episode if solutions with a ‘temporary’ status attached are implemented – like communities have been displaced, give them alternate space and shelter. That is not a sustainable solution!

Ordered demolitions: Aftermath of the anti-encroachment drive in Empress Market.

The critical understanding that can be drawn from the legal orders and subsequent developments is that there is no simple, one-dimensional solution to the malaise that has afflicted this city. The root causes of the problem and the cross-cutting factors, cause and effect relationships have to be understood, unpacked and addressed, instead of treating the symptoms. It is feared that unless such a holistic lens is applied,  a viable and durable solution would always remain elusive and this urban disease will mutate and become even harder to suppress with the passage of time.

In order to understand issues of ‘encroachment’ and ‘land use violations,’ we need to analyse the ‘why’ and the ‘how.’

The first thread to consider in this complicated web of urban mismanagement is the lack of sanctioning and non-implementation of any of the master plans prepared for this city and the ever weakening writ of the state and rule of law.

The master  plans had no legal sanction, leading to the ad hoc development of the city and excessive use of the so-called official ‘discretion’ in the enactment and implementation of urban development policies and actions. As a result, issues in city planning have never been addressed holistically in an integrated manner. As such, critical urban services like housing, public spaces, water and sanitation, transportation and commercial growth have all suffered.

If we categorise the type of ‘illegal’ constructions, encroachments and built typologies that have been targeted – then they are either housing and shelter or commercial. Let’s take housing first. Decision makers and service providers in Karachi have never been able to successfully address the issue of social and low income housing in Karachi. A number of efforts have failed owing to a variety of reasons that include a failure to attract genuine buyers, absence of provision of basic civic services such as water, power, transport, employment and education – that convert a ‘house’ into a ‘housing’ project. Due to the lack of financial support systems, instead of genuine buyers, land was invested in by speculative real estate actors. Learning from successful community based efforts such as the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) model never was a priority and as such there was an unfortunate failure by the government to streamline such models into a policy framework to increase their footprint.

The Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority (SKAA), made to evaluate and regularise katchi abadis (squatter settlements), was not able to sustain some good progress made in the beginning. It is therefore no surprise that at present, over 50 per cent of Karachiites live in informal settlements, which grow at twice Karachi’s annual urban growth rate.  Other estimates show that the current demand for 80,000 housing units is met by a supply of only 30,000 units per year in the formal sector. The gap is made up for with the supply of at least 32,000 housing units in katchi abadis annually (Hasan 2013). It is such katchi abadis that are among the ones that are being demolished. So while the intent behind the legal order is noble and legally also viable, given the ground realities, such encroachment removal practices, in the absence of a sustainable social and low income housing vision and plan can never lead to a workable solution.

Heavy machinery used to demolish larger encroachments in Rainbow Centre.

If we look at the way commercialisation of land parcels has taken place, sound planning principles like creating decentralised district and neighbourhood-based commercial districts and market spaces has not been followed. Instead what we are now witnessing is a process of unregulated commercialisation of land parcels in Karachi, primarily within the backdrop of the policy decision of the City District Government Karachi (CDGK) to allow commercialisation of various traffic corridors (17 traffic corridors in all) within the city, under the CDGK Change of Land Use and Master Planning By-laws 2003, notified on February 12, 2004. This ‘ribbon commercialisation’ was in defiance to the opposing pleas of planning experts. What has happened is piecemeal commercialisation, filtering from the main traffic corridors into adjacent neighbourhoods, with extremely damaging social and environmental consequences. Once such processes are rolled out, issues with the ‘illegality’ of land use conversions are worked out through a nexus of builders, regulating agencies, investors, elected representatives etc.

Institutions of land development and regulation have been politicised, with rampant corruption and rent seeking, so that instead of curtailing practices of land use violations and illegal encroachments, laws have been modified in the guise of ‘regularisation’ to facilitate the abusers and to paper over their crimes.              

If we talk about public spaces such as parks and playgrounds, then the most potent threats they have faced for many years have been either encroachments or ‘change of land use’ obtained through using political or other forms of influence. This challenge poses an existential threat to such places of public access. In this regard, a Judicial Commission formed in the year 2016, in response to a petition filed by a citizen, looked into services such as water, sanitation and solid waste. On November 29, 2017, the Supreme Court, responding to another citizens’ petition, ordered the Karachi Development Authority (KDA) to remove encroachments from around 35,000 amenity plots in the city within a period of two months. The Court also observed that in many of the encroached amenity plots, proper buildings have been constructed, including universities and marriage halls. This brings into focus an almost complete government failure of regulating land use that in most cases results from complicity of relevant government officials with real estate dealers, builders, politicians, and bureaucrats. Land use manipulation is a high stake operation in Karachi, as a significant percentage of available finance gets invested in land, to a great extent in speculative buying.   

The scale of this problem is huge and a study, ‘Parks and Amenity Spaces of Karachi,’ conducted in the year 2011 by a local NGO, Shehri-Citizens for a Better Environment, throws some light on this. The study team physically surveyed all the ST Amenity plots in Karachi and documented their present land use status, comparing it with the original land use plans. It was found that of a total of 7911 ST Amenity plots, 1955 were partially or fully encroached upon. This means 24 per cent of the ST Amenity plots have already been encroached on. Types of encroachments included mosques, apartments, housing and squatter settlements.

All this has happened while the law relating to ST Amenity plots specifically states that, ‘Regulation 18-4.1, No Amenity Plot reserved for the specific purpose shall be converted or utilised for any other purpose’ – ‘The Karachi Building & Town Planning Regulations, 2002.’ Urban green areas have declined as a proportion to the urban footprint, from 4.6 per cent (27 km2) to 3.7 per cent (30 km2).

Karachi is a highly fragmented city with the fragmentation cutting across the institutional, political, religious and socio-economic fabric of the city. When we deconstruct processes of transaction of land and services, we find that with the reducing writ of the state, they have been transferred significantly to the informal sector that is not regulated.

There is a parallel economy related with transaction land, access to civic services and more in the city, running into billions of rupees that is not documented. So any practice related to land and services provides a mined landscape for our decision makers. Navigating this landscape to formalise processes, bring back the rule of law and develop a vision and integrated planning approach would require a strong show of political will and forging of political consensus among the key powerbrokers within the city.

In the absence of this larger vision, we would continue to see more violation of land uses and encroachment of spaces meant for the public interest.