From protector to evictor of slum residents – reversal of roles for the judiciary

Guest blogger Arif Hasan reflects on the seismic shift in attitude in the criminal justice system he has observed over his 50 years as teacher, researcher, writer, activist, architect and advisor to government and civil society in Karachi. He illustrates this by examining recent court judgements – and their possible causes.

Arif Hasan's picture
Guest blog by
24 February 2022

Arif Hasan is an architect and planner

Building split in half

Partially demolished settlement in Muhammadabad, Orangi Nala, Karachi (Photo: copyright Urban Resource Center)

After partition from India, with huge numbers of migrants arriving in Karachi, the judiciary played an important role in permitting and even supporting the informal settlements and livelihoods the newcomers developed.

But this has changed dramatically as the judiciary now initiates and supports evictions.

This is the latest in a series of blogs and interviews, curated by IIED senior fellow David Satterthwaite, examining different aspects of global urban change.

That was then…

In 1947 Karachi, with a population of 450,000, was subject to an influx of over 600,000 refugees from India. They settled in the open spaces within the city and in informal settlements on its fringes. They were supported by the state with land provided and services incrementally introduced over time.

This form of development was accepted and became part of planning policy. The state also created ‘hawker zones’ and markets to develop businesses and provide jobs for the refugee population.

The politicians and bureaucrats of that period sought to build a ‘welfare state’ with plans to provide homes, jobs, education and health facilities for the poor and marginalised. But a lack of human and financial resources meant these could not be realised.

However, government programmes did grant ownership rights to residents of informal settlements. Pakistan’s judiciary, including its superior courts, did not oppose this process and even helped informal settlements in acquiring utility connections.

…but this is now

But things have changed. In October 2018, the Supreme Court ordered the government of the Sindh province to revive the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) and with it the demolition of over 4,000 houses on its route. So far 1,100 houses, home to some 12,000 people, have been demolished. No compensation or land for relocation was provided, although the Supreme Court did say that the Sindh government should rehabilitate the evictees within one year of the demolition.

It has not happened, so residents have lived in the ruins of their homes for the last four years. Meanwhile the Supreme Court has not forced compliance of its orders for rehabilitation, and the KCR has yet to be revived fully.

That same month the Sindh High Court issued another order for the removal of all ‘encroachments’ of hawkers, cabins, and small businesses from the pavements and roads of Karachi. Again, no compensation or relocation was offered.

This resulted in the demolition of 3,495 shops, the removal of more than 9,000 hawkers, and the devastation of supply chains, including those for tea and dry fruits and exotic animals with links to Kenya, Sri Lanka, Latin America, the Far East and Afghanistan.

In a previous blog, I described how the Supreme Court had also ordered the removal of homes constructed on the right of way of the nalas (storm water drains) in informal settlements. So far, over 6,500 homes have been demolished with no resettlement provided. Yet, no demolition of ‘formal sector’ buildings on the nalas has taken place.

Not surprisingly, this is a key issue in other cities. For instance in Islamabad, the prime minister’s illegally-constructed home has been regularised and the Hyatt Regency Hotel’s violation of building by-laws has also been regularised.

The Supreme Court has also taken it upon itself to order the demolition of shops, clubs, marriage halls and housing complexes built on amenity plots in violation of the Karachi Master Plan 1975-85. In the case of residential complexes, utilities were disconnected forcing residents to move out. The developers who have violated the by-laws and zoning regulations have been asked to provide alternative accommodation for those affected.

These court actions raise a number of questions:

  1. Is it within the jurisdiction of the courts to take these important executive decisions? The politicians and media don’t think so, but are helpless
  2. Karachi is full of ‘illegal buildings’ and if we pull them all down there will be very little left of the city. On what basis are the courts deciding which buildings to pull down?
  3. Is there is a class bias in determining what should or should not be removed? Although recently, perhaps due to public pressure, the court has also identified buildings for demolition in high-income areas and military cantonments, and
  4. The courts are creating homelessness, unemployment, out-of-school children and vulnerable families with little possibility of upward mobility, whereas state policies aim for the opposite. How does one deal with this contradiction?

However, the most important question is, what has changed to make the courts lose their long-standing empathy for the poor and their support of informal settlements?

Changing attitudes by the bureaucrats…

Having dealt with three generations of bureaucrats, I can safely say they have changed. Post-partition bureaucrats belonged to a generation with ‘progressive’ ideas, and recited revolutionary poetry – many were poets and writers themselves. They were committed to providing a welfare state. But it would be difficult to find a poet among the present generation of bureaucrats with their love of expensive cars, Rolex watches, and designer clothes.

The commitment to a welfare state ended in the mid-1990s, with new terms to define development and institutional arrangements. These include ‘direct foreign investment’ (replaced ‘planning by projects’), “it is not the business of the state to do business” (no need to say this anymore as it is well established), ‘public/private partnership’ (now the norm with the main burden falling on the public), ‘build-operate-transfer’ and ‘build-operate-own’ (infrastructure delivery systems), and the ‘world class city’ concept.

As members of the post-partition generation have either died or retired, their concept of development is no longer seen as relevant.

… as well as politicians, and others

Post-partition politicians were a product of the freedom movement and most had been active in student politics. Even unwittingly they were ‘pro-people’. Many politicians today are contractors, commission agents and real estate tycoons. Their main purpose is to increase their wealth and, where needed, purchase the bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, the military is also involved in large-scale speculative real estate development. Increasingly a nexus of the military, politicians, bureaucrats and real estate tycoons determine the nature of development and planning in Karachi.

Adding to this is the emergence of an educated middle class wanting all the luxuries of a consumer culture: housing estates with swimming pools, gyms, playgrounds, malls instead of Sunday and Friday bazaars, along with constant demands for better services and a greener environment.

There has also been a proliferation of private universities and expensive elite schools while schools in katchi abadis (informal settlements) are being demolished because of the evictions.

A new culture

Perhaps this new culture is what the courts are pandering to. This is what most civil society organisations and government agencies who constantly petition the courts against encroachments, ad hoc land use changes and violation of zoning laws, believe. This creates a conflict between Karachi’s emerging middle class and the real estate lobby, which it sees as exploitative and anti-environment.

The middle class, however, is divided. There are those who feel that the action of the courts is making innocent people pay for the wrongs done by government officials in connivance with the builders.

Then there are those who support the court action arguing that evictions discourage future violations of building by-laws and zoning regulations. They believe that this will lead to a better, greener, and healthier city.

The question is, will the courts, given the increasing number of those affected, be able to sustain this process?


For more of Arif Hasan’s work and articles, see his Wikipedia link and his website.

About the author

Arif Hasan is an architect and planner, and former IIED fellow. He is the founding chair of Karachi’s Urban Resource Centre and member of the executive board of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights

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