[Originally published on Asia Development Dialogue]
In July 2015, images of police dragging women out of their homes in slums of Islamabad – the posh capital of Pakistan – divided Pakistanis privileged enough to have a voice on social and mainstream media. Some sympathised with the poor who were being forcefully evicted from their homes, while others argued that state should show no tolerance towards ‘illegal settlements’.
This division was further fueled by the propaganda of the municipal authority of Islamabad – the Capital Development Authority (CDA) – that accused the residents of the settlement of being criminals, drug dealers, terrorists, and ‘Afghan’. This confusing labelling is due to the division of ethnic Pashtuns during Britain’s redrawing of the Afghan-Pakistan border in 1947 during decolonisation. However, the government issued national identity cards of the residents show them to be Pakistani citizens originally from north western Pakistan, and voting records as old as the 1980s show that the elders of the community have been residents here since then. The only terrorist ‘activity’ that the state could surmise in this saga was through booking 66 residents under the Anti-Terrorism Act because they were resisting eviction from the slum. This is despite there having been no evidence of weapons, drugs, or any of the other initial claims made by the CDA.
Missing from the single-dimensional narrative is the issue of whether criminality qualifies an entire community for eviction displacement, and homelessness. Also, no one is wondering which factors had propelled the community to settle in these areas in the first place. In reality, the residents here either came to fulfill the demand for labour in the rapidly expanding Islamabad-Rawalpindi metropolis, or to seek refuge as internally displaced persons (IDPs) from violence in the border regions where they are originally from. A large part of the labour force of this particular slum works in the fruit and vegetable wholesale market nearby, whereas others work – often below minimum wage rates – as domestic workers in the houses of the city’s elite.
What is most fascinating about this case is how the orders for the eviction of this community came about. A resident of the slums filed a grievance in the high court against the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) for refusing to issue him a national identity card using his house address. The court, however, turned the case into a question of the legality of the slum where his house was situated, and subsequently ordered the CDA to demolish all of the houses in the community.
The demands of slum dwellers are simple. They demand either their slums be formalised in Islamabad as stipulated in the National Housing Policy 2001 under specific sections relating to Katchi Abadis (slums); or, they ask that alternative low cost shelter be provided to the working class urban poor with supply of basic facilities. as there were no reliable facilities of electricity, running water, or gas; and a few charity primary schools were the only hope of an education for the children.
However, there is a ray of hope. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has granted a stay on the demolition of slums in the case of a petition filed by Abid Hassan Minto, President of the leftist Awami Workers Party (AWP), who argues that the state has the responsibility to protect the fundamental right to security of person under Article 9, right to fair trial under Article 10(a), and equality of citizens under Article 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan.
This case brings to the fore several questions. First, is it legitimate for a state authority to forcefully evict thousands of poor residents without providing them alternate housing? Secondly, do the urban elite hold any responsibility towards the poor whose services they benefit from? Thirdly, should the state only rely on market forces to automatically allocate resources such as shelter to all social classes, or should it intervene?
It is high time that state authorities in urban areas around the world realise that complex problems require complex solutions, and short-term arbitrary measures do not solve but actually exacerbate the problems that come with poverty and lack of opportunity. And those who complain about the pollution that poverty brings through ‘illegal’ settlements should remember that nobody chooses to live in a slum.