Apr 6, 2010

Shrinking space for home

Katchi abadis have been evolving eversince
independence due to inadequate state response for the poors’ housing

By Dr Noman Ahmed

The United Nations Centre for Human Settlements organised the World Urban Forum from 22 to 26 March 2010 at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Experts and stakeholders deliberated on the issues relating to cities. Previous resolutions were reviewed and new drafts deliberated upon to facilitate practical actions in these domains. One of the matters that were focused in these discussions was the evolving phenomenon of ‘endless cities’.

Experts define these city systems as sprawling urban corridors capable of accommodating even 100 million inhabitants. There are many negative outcomes that have already begun impacting settlements and corresponding regions. Loss of precious farmlands for food production, escalating energy consumption in transport, and commuting, gradual depletion of bio-diversity and regional environmental assets and extraordinary problems in urban management in such regions are core matters that have caught the attention of stakeholders across the globe.

Most of these issues possess enormous relevance in the context of Pakistani cities and settlements. The anomalous rise in the population of mega cities and other large urban settlements has generated complex problems of rights and privileges. In addition, the country also faces many local problems pertinent to urbanisation within her territorial folds. With limited resources and opportunities, the scenario has become grave and requires appropriate strategies to be developed and applied without delay.

National socio-economic indicators show many alarming trends in poverty level which could be articulated after the much-awaited population and housing census. The capacity to build any monetary asset to acquire shelter of even the basic kind is simply non-existing. These people survive either as nomads or dwell in the wilderness terrains of various regions. The landless artisans and labourers do not find sustainable access to land for housing. They keep moving from place to place or flock towards large urban centres.

Natural calamities, disasters and security hazard have uprooted thousands of people from their native habitat. Pakistan’s continued participation in the war on terror has caused sizable displacements. No wonder that the country is in the grip of deadliest of violence all across the territory apparently due to socially-uprooted and psychologically-disturbed people who exist in large numbers.

Poor land management has given rise to many informal activities. The urban centres face the challenge of squatter settlements as an acute issue. These settlements have been evolving eversince independence due to inadequate state response to the need of housing for the poor. As state land was abundant, many katchi abadis sprang up on these loosely guarded territories. The land lords of peri-urban locations also contributed in the promotion of katchi abadis for their own benefits.

It is a well-known fact that moving to Karachi from various disadvantaged regions is still continuing at a very high pace. Much of this population is absorbed in the confines of existing katchi abadies. In reference to one interpretation, katchi abadis can be called as the shock absorbers for the city because there would have been mass scale riots if the low income groups had an absolute denial of housing rights. It is also true that one cannot ignore the squalor and dilapidated conditions that currently prevail in these locations. This fact demands a people-friendly approach.

Scarcity of shelter options is not only affecting the low income groups but also middle income stakeholders. The low and lower middle income groups constitute around two-thirds of the total population. However, these groups face an acute shortage of housing choices. With very limited financial means, they find it extremely difficult to sustain their white collar lifestyles For example, an apartment measuring 1200 sq. ft. in Gulshan-e-Iqbal in Karachi, which had a price tag of Rs. 2 million about a year ago, is now being sold at Rs. 3.5 million.

Similarly, land supply and development is mostly done in high income areas where the property market is experiencing a meteoric rise. Undeveloped land is being rated at Rs. 20000-30000 per sq. yd. The rapid speculations in land and property markets are acting as a catalyst in these processes. There has been no new scheme that was launched for low-income groups since 1979 in Karachi despite phenomenal rise in their numbers.

Land supply is the foremost consideration that has an impact on habitat. Due to its unique nature, land was traditionally considered a social asset. Now it is treated as a saleable commodity. Another major change is the growing incapacity of the government to influence what is now termed as land market. Since the decisions related to land supply and transactions involve a spread out cadre of stake holders, the mechanics of land delivery for housing and other functions are governed in proportion to the relative influence exercised by each category of stakeholders.

Thus the armed forces, their foundations and countless enterprises; real estate investors from the country and abroad; international financial institutions; political groups; ethnic and religious lobbies; transporters and civilian bureaucracy are some prominent categories of stakeholders that directly affect the decision-making pertinent to land. It is obvious that neither the poor nor their well-wishers/sympathizers show up in any of these categories.

Effective checks must be applied to the snow-balling rise in real estate development. Appropriate changes must be introduced in the zoning and building regulations to promote mixed land use in an effective manner. The old principle of cross subsidy must be re-introduced where land and housing prices may be augmented by the levies on real estate enterprises. It must be remembered that no urban and regional security and prosperity can be achieved in contexts where more than half of the folks are denied the right to access a decent roof on their heads.

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