by Waqas Malik, Tenant
On July 30, more than 16,000 people were evicted from the Sector I-11 katchi abadi or squatter settlement in Islamabad, Pakistan, near the border with its sister city of Rawalpindi.
More than 1,000 police officers were deployed, along with scores of paramilitary troops and personnel from the Capital Development Authority (CDA), the public corporation in charge of development in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. They were dressed in riot gear, brought armored vehicles, and fired tear-gas shells into the settlement. A 16-day-old baby boy died of asphyxiation from tear-gas after multiple shells burst inside his home. I-11 residents say he wasn't the only child who died from the gas, and that Islamabad police harassed and threatened the baby's parents until they signed a false death certificate.
They bulldozed the modest homes in the settlement, along with the well-tended plants, little shops, too few schools, and four mosques—the threadbare, self-made infrastructure that the residents of I-11 pieced together by themselves, without any government-built infrastructure. (Islamabad's katchi abadis are the only places in the city where solar energy is used, due to the government cutting off electricity, gas, and water supplies.) The people left behind scrambled for what was left before the bulldozers crushed their hard-earned possessions. They were rounded up by the CDA, loaded like livestock into trucks, and told to go back to "where they came from."
Most of I-11's residents were ethnic Pakhtuns from the province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa, formerly known as North-West Frontier Province, in the northwest along the Afghanistan border. Many had lived in the settlement for two generations.
The state had presented propaganda about the presence of "terrorists," "security threats" and "criminal hideouts" in I-11, and the electronic media quickly lapped it up. No weapons were recovered during the eviction, except for stones residents threw to try to fend off the police.
More than 60 people were arrested, including children, the aged, and the physically disabled. They were charged with terrorism and intent to murder. Some had no connection to the settlement other than that they were walking through it. Members of the socialist Awami Workers Party who were protesting peacefully were also booked under the Anti-Terrorist Act. Many middle-class Islamabadis posted messages on Facebook to congratulate the CDA for evicting "illegal Afghans."
"I want to burn this flag," said evicted resident Nur Khan, a Pakistani Pakhtun, pointing to the Pakistan flag. "What has this country done for us except shoo us away like flies with their spray [tear-gas]?"
A Dearth of Low-Cost Housing
The I-11 katchi abadi was one of 44 such informal settlements in Islamabad. These are common in developing countries, from the colonias of Mexico City to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. People who can't afford to buy or rent legal housing move into an undeveloped area, build their own houses out of wood or cinderblocks, and gradually hook up water and electricity, often pirating it at first.
The I-11 settlement came into existence in 1983. It was nicknamed "Afghan Basti," because many Afghan refugees lived there. Over time, a large number of Pakistani Pakhtuns migrated there from the northwest, fleeing poverty and the onslaught of armed militants. As with the other katchi abadis in the city, they faced the constant threat of eviction. In 2005, most of the Afghan population was relocated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency to a refugee camp in the neighboring I-12 sector.
As the population of Islamabad tripled in the past decade to nearly 2 million people, the number of working poor, the people who keep the city running, also increased—mostly Christian Punjabis and Muslim Pakhtuns. With neither the Pakistani state nor the private sector providing adequate housing for the working class in Islamabad, the informal settlements grew. I-11 consisted of about 1,570 households and accommodated more then 16,000 people. They were able to stave off being bulldozed by making regular monthly payments to low-level government officials.
With the sheer absence of low-income housing in Islamabad, the evictees fled to Tarnol, Sangjani, and Chakra, semi-urban areas on the edges of the Islamabad-Rawalpindi metropolitan area, as well as the Fauji Colony settlement in Rawalpindi . Even here, they were chased by the Islamabad police, who made announcements in local mosques threatening those who gave shelter to the I-11 residents. The aim was to shoo them all "back to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa." (This is similar to telling a Puerto Rican in New York to "go back where you came from.") Luckily, those were one-off announcements, and people have temporarily found shelter in these areas.
The rents for these places, however, are much higher than what the people evicted had been paying in I-11 or what they can afford, and this has pushed most into extremely high debt. Thousands of children have been unable to attend school since the eviction.
"They call us terrorists, throw us into debt, pull our houses down, stop our children's education. I can say we surely aren't, but maybe our children might take the road to terrorism," said Umar Gul, a resident of I-11.
Most of the people arrested have been released by the Islamabad High Court. An exception is two teenage boys who worked in the nearby sabzi mandi, or vegetable market. They were arrested because they looked Pakhtun.
Article 38(d) of the Constitution of Pakistan states that it is the responsibility of the state to guarantee housing as a right for every Pakistani. On a national level, it has failed to do so. There is an estimated shortage of 8 million housing units. Assuming that the Pakistani household's size is seven people, that means there is no formal option available to 56 million Pakistanis, almost one-third of the nation's 185 million people. This lack of housing for Pakistan's poor is the simple reason behind the katchi abadi phenomenon, and why people live in these "illegal settlements."
The Supreme Court of Pakistan has ordered the CDA to resettle the 16,000 evicted people, in a constitutional case being fought by lawyer Abid Hasan Minto, head of the Awami Workers Party. It also issued a stay barring the police and CDA from evicting any other katchi abadis in Islamabad. The All Pakistan Alliance of Katchi Abadis, the Awami Workers Party, and housing expert Tasneem Siddiqui (the founder of the Khuda ki Basti low-income housing plan) have joined efforts to press the CDA to obey those orders.
"We build their homes, sell them their fruit and vegetables, pave their roads, and basically run the city they live in," said Ramdad, another evicted I-11 resident. "Where should we live? On their heads?"
Waqas Malik, a member of the Awami Workers Party, lives in Islamabad and works at Pakistan’s National Highways Authority.
This article first appeared in the October issue of Tenant, the publicaiton of New York's Metropolitan Council on Housing.
Photo courtesy of Awami Workers Party
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