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Katchi abadis in Pakistan | Alia Amirali

20 April 2014

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The News on Sunday, April 20, 2014

Farah Zia

“We need to transform the working-classes into a strong political force”

Alia Amirali, social activist and member of Awami Workers’ Party, talks about the political, economic, and social aspects of the emergence of katchi abadis in Pakistan. “We need to transform the working-classes into a strong political force”

The News on Sunday: You have been associated with the issue of forced eviction of many katchi abadis in Islamabad, a decision that has been postponed for now. How do you look at the issue of katchi abadis — both as an Islamabad-specific problem and generally across Pakistan?

Alia Amirali: The issue of katchi abadis is hardly new; neither is it Islamabad- or even Pakistan-specific. Katchi abadis exist in all urban centres, which bear the promise of economic opportunity or livelihood. Life in the rural areas (many of which should more accurately be called ‘peri-urban’) has become increasingly unviable and/or undesirable for most people.

The majority of katchi abadi dwellers are those for whom the only means of survival is to migrate to urban centres so as to sell their labour-power and earn enough to feed themselves and their families. Even those who do own some land or other assets often prefer to sell them and migrate to the cities in the hope of becoming upwardly mobile. Hence, the issue of housing in urban centres is bound to intensify over time, in all of Pakistan’s major urban centres.

In the case of Islamabad, these in-migrations began when the city’s foundations were being laid, and labour was brought in to fulfill the various requirements of construction, sanitation, and other forms of semi-skilled and un-skilled labour. Interestingly, the urban planners of Islamabad simply ‘forgot’ that the working-class population that built the city and keeps it running till this day also require a roof over their heads when they are not working; no ‘sectors’ were designated for low-income housing in the city’s master plan.

Given that the only option for this class was to squat on ‘state land’, it is ridiculous (and infuriating!) when bureaucrats sitting in their air-conditioned offices (which run on working people’s taxes) give us lessons in ‘responsible citizenship’…. Shouldn’t we be questioning instead: what is ‘state land’? Where did the state get ‘its’ land from? Buying it for a pittance from poor people and then using it against them is like using a piece of candy to tempt an eight-year-old into a dark room and then using the opportunity to do as you please once the child is trapped… State land — to refresh the memory of generals, bureaucrats, businessmen and all forms of parasites who currently occupy the vast majority of state land — is nothing other than people’s land which has been given to the state for people’s use, not for the use of the state as some ‘sovereign entity’ independent of the people. People are sovereign, not the state; and the state’s purpose is to serve the people, lest our state officials forget.

However, the issue of katchi abadis is not particular to the state alone. Katchi abadis are completely in line with the contradictions inherent within capitalist development itself; it is the ‘developed’ areas which require a larger labour-force to keep the city running, perform its everyday maintainence tasks, ensure the provision of basic facilities and services to the city’s residents.
The Housing Policy 2001, and its section on Katchi Abadis is a step in the right direction but the current government’s complete disregard for the policy’s stipulations has shown that such matters are inherently political rather than legal.

On the other hand, the ethos of capitalist development sees only commercial activity as ‘productive’, only profitable transactions as ‘valuable’, and all use of assets (whether it be land, capital, labour or anything else) which are not geared towards profit-making as ‘wasteful’, ‘inefficient’, and, hence, undesirable. Amongst the long list of human needs that are in the ‘undesirable’ list is low-income housing; for which no mainstream ‘developers’ will write up catchy proposals, no CDA Chief will provide incentives; no parliamentarian or bureaucrat or general will insist upon the need for low-cost housing. It is not that such schemes will cost a great deal — they don’t, and they certainly don’t when compared to the exorbitant amounts spent on ‘beautifying’ the capital. It is simply that they do not fit with the development ethos; they merely fulfill human needs.

TNS: What are the immediate and long term threats that the residents face?

AA: The threats that the residents face are both immediate and long-term; the immediate threats hardly need explanation. Not having a roof over one’s head essentially means that whatever semblance of normalcy these families have built for themselves will be instantly destroyed. If forcibly evicted, residents will lose their livelihoods, and the brunt will be borne by women and children who will be forced to enter into market relations from a position of extreme vulnerability that is likely to be exploited. Residents fear being rejected by their relatives to whom they would turn for immediate relief. Most insist that they will not return to their home towns, because there is nothing to return to. If there had been opportunities to survive there, they say, they would have returned voluntarily; there would be no need for coercive measures to compel them to return to their own homes.

We also have to be cognizant of the fact that many of the katchi abadis have been home not to a floating population of migrant workers who come and go, but to entire families, generations, who have known only these abadis as their ‘home’; who have been born there, who have grown up there, who have married and settled and raised families there, and have no memories of anything other than the abadi as their ‘home’.

Demolishing katchi abadis means displacing an entire people who have no ‘home’ to return to, other than the one they are being evicted from. Being forcibly torn away from one’s home, community, and history is a form of violence that can only engender deep anger and hatred for anything and everything that is seen as the ‘cause’; it will push society towards further uncertainty, desperation, and volatility.

TNS: Does regularisation of a katchi abadi make any difference?

AA. Regularisation of abadis does make a difference, but to an extent. It, at least, ensures that situations like the one currently unfolding in Islamabad’s unregularised abadis do not happen; regularised abadis are at least safe from the threat of eviction. However, lack of low-income housing options means that even the ‘regularised’ abadis will soon (and most have already) trespass their boundaries due to the pressure of population increase; and abadis will become congested, expand their boundaries (and, hence, ‘encroach’ on state/private lands), or people will establish new settlements.

The regularised abadis are at least entitled (in principle) to basic amenities such as gas, water, and electricity, and the discrepancy between principles and their implementation notwithstanding, these facilities have been provided in various regularised abadis, at least in the capital.

What one tends to forget though, is that the ‘regularised’ abadis were also once ‘irregular’, and that it took a solid, united, long-term struggle of abadi residents, left-wing political forces, and their sympathisers in government to devise the National Housing Policy 2001, which first recognised katchi abadis as legitimate and created laws/regulations for the protection of the residents.

The current benchmark or cut-off point for recognising an abadi as legitimate is now outdated; even now only abadis that were formed before 1985 are legible for regularisation; those that have been formed after 1985 are ‘illegitimate’ and liable for eviction (even though the housing policy 2001 does stipulate that all katchi abadi residents must be provided with a resettlement plan, to be chalked out in consultation with the abadi residents, if evictions are to take place).

TNS: There is a sense that each time an issue like the one in Islamabad emerges, people start doing politics around it. What kind of politics is required around this issue? Are the residents aware of their rights and politically organised in some manner?

AA: This issue has been interesting in various respects. You say that various people have started doing politics around the issue; the truth is that it is only once people were organised, the movement had gained momentum, and people had already begun resisting that the mainstream and right-wing political forces jumped into the scene. I’m not blowing my own horn here, but the truth is that it is the Left which has nurtured and supported the Alliance for Katchi Abadis for almost two decades now.

The Awami Workers Party has worked consistently, without any “political motives” in the sense which the term is usually meant, i.e. for securing votes, and the current (and certainly temporary) ‘victory’ of the abadi residents in which the administration has been forced to delay its demolition campaign is a product of long-term, grounded organising work.

But what is also interesting is that the mainstream parties find it very difficult to defend this issue beyond a superficial level. The mainstream parties have real trouble standing up for these ‘encroachers’ who defy the law, who openly reject the hegemonic ideals of ‘rule of law’ because it is precisely the law which makes them invisible and which is used to invisibilise them.

Not only is this movement discursively problematic for the mainstream and the right-wing (because it is based on Hindu-Muslim unity, features a major participation of women, and mandates mutual respect and equality of all peoples who are part of the movement), but it also exposes the duality of the ‘law’ itself, and of the actions undertaken — or not taken, rather — under the rubric of ‘law enforcement’.

It is common knowledge that scores of heavy-weight super-rich politicians have constructed mansions along the Rawal Lake in Islamabad entirely in violation of the city’s housing regulations. Corporations are allowed to set up shop in the most central green belts in the city; and yet they persist. And when the legality of such profit-making enterprises or commercial giants is questioned, the solution is either a hushing up of the entire issue (a lot of money can silence a lot of mouths), or the boundaries/conditions of legality are tweaked to incorporate these high-level ‘illegalities’ into the legal fold. Laws can be (and are) made, amended, even revoked but such ‘special measures’ are exclusively for the rich.

TNS: Linked with the earlier question, what kind of politics is missing at the level of mainstream political parties? Capitalist economy has impacted trade unionism in this country. Do you think the Left has a chance now to organise people at the level of katchi abadis as it traditionally did?

AA: This question has been partially answered in my response above. But as far as the potential for Left organising in the abadis goes, well, it’s interesting that katchi abadis have not been a ‘traditional’ site of Left organising.

Traditionally, it has been trade unions, or peasants, or other segments which were directly linked to ‘production’ sites. As you have mentioned, trade unions have become de-radicalised, co-opted, and passive (for which the responsibility lies, in my view, primarily with the collapse of left-wing politics in Pakistan and world-wide since the 1990s, but also due to the Left’s internal mistakes and weaknesses).

Organising in katchi abadis allows us access to segments of the working-class that we did not traditionally work with or consider ‘revolutionary’, particularly women, christians, and other religious minorities, and migrants of varying ethnicities, castes, etc. I am not suggesting that katchi abadi organising is a substitute for organising workers at their workplaces, or peasants in the villages. However, it has helped us to recognise (and thus organise) the relatively disadvantaged segments of the working-classes, and to bring together all of these various communities into a collective struggle based on mutual interest and mutual respect, something that is essential to transform the working-classes into a strong, united, revolutionary political force in this society.

TNS: What are the solutions that you would propose to the government in terms of housing policy, laws, etc. to ensure a dignified living for the residents of katchi abadis?

AA: In terms of concrete particular solutions, we feel that it is the state’s responsibility to chalk out plans for resettlement, low-income housing, etc. We act to remind the state of its ‘duty’ to citizens, not to fulfill the state’s duties ourselves (unless the Left is in government of course!).

Having said that, in terms of suggesting possible solutions in the current scenario, it is very clear that talks of a ‘solution’ are only possible if the government agrees to treat the katchi abadi residents as people rather than as bacteria or insects, as the term ‘encroachers’ implies; and if it is willing to chalk out a resettlement plan in consultation with the abadis.

So far, the Capital Development Authority has shown no inclination towards resettling these abadis or of shelving the demolition campaign, let alone being open to possibilities of different resettlement options (of which there are plenty of ‘models’ all over the world, particularly in Latin America). The Housing Policy 2001, and its section on Katchi Abadis is a step in the right direction but the current government’s complete disregard for the policy’s stipulations has shown that such matters are inherently political rather than legal. And it is this political fight that is critical to the future of not just katchi abadi residents but of working-class peoples everywhere in the country.

A shorter version of this interview was published in The News on Sunday, April 20, 2014.


The above article from The News on Sunday is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use