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Capital violence

THE unbreakable bond between Pakistani city administrators and anti-encroachment has been at the fore in Islamabad for weeks, as clashes have broken out between authorities and protesters during the demolition of thousands of ‘illegal structures’ in upcoming and existing sectors. In this time, hundreds of protesters have been beaten, families have been displaced, and many have been arrested and charged with a broad catalogue of crimes, including attempted murder. The Capital Development Authority chairman, meanwhile, has tweeted his progress in ‘sorting out’ the ‘qabza mafia’.

Beyond the immediate violence, there is something to be said here about deeper issues with our collective vision of progress, and the frustration felt by segments of society that are constantly rejected by a state that is supposed to serve them. There is nothing inherently illegal about people living on ancestral lands, building homes and raising families. Neither is there anything inherently criminal about slums, informal settlements or makeshift shelters. These are only illegal because the city of Islamabad is dedicated to imposing a stringent version of its master plan which does not correspond to ground realities.

The city administration does have the option of bringing the formal to the informal by accepting that there are poorer settlements in the city which may not be in accordance with a grid-like vision of an idyllic, prosperous Islamabad. However, in order to extend even the most basic civic facilities, they would have to first acknowledge the existence of those living within the cracks of the gleaming city. The socially, politically and economically excluded would have to be considered equal residents.

There is an unspoken reality about land in the capital, the rules of which go like this: encroachment is only encroachment when the poor do it. When the rich of Islamabad occupy and cordon off plots next to their house, it’s called ‘maintenance’. If a poor family sets up a shelter for survival, they’re a mafia; but when thousands of acres are grabbed en masse by state institutions or private developers for profit, it’s called ‘development’.

There are reasonable alternatives to mass demolitions.

This, unfortunately, seems to be very much in line with the CDA’s history of anti-encroachment. There was the demolition of 2,000 households in the I-11 Afghan basti in 2015. There’s the case of Rimsha Colony in H-9, precariously hanging on with its 1,400 households in the direct path of a future 10th Avenue. And there are many other small and large acts of eviction, displacement and violence in the capital each day.

A big part of the problem lies in the structure of our capital ‘authority’, which is entirely reliant on ‘acquiring’, ‘developing’ and selling plots of land for revenue — an issue which can be circumvented by the creation of a devolved local government system which has the power to raise and spend taxes. Yet again, this underscores the importance of a city run by a local government which has been elected by the vote of the people rather than an unelected bureaucracy.

This is definitely not to say that a democratic set-up will immediately alter the anti-poor outlook embedded in our governance structures — in fact, the first elected mayor of Islamabad was widely criticised for his anti-encroachment antics. However, it does create a system where individuals can hold policymakers accountable through the ballot, as compared to the inaccessibility of a CDA office.

It bears mentioning that none of this means the city should opt instead for unplanned sprawl. But if urban planning is legitimately the concern here, then there are reasonable alternatives to mass demolitions and evictions. The housing crisis in Islamabad will not be solved by the creation of more high-income sectors with plots that will end up on the speculative real estate market. There is the option of regularising and integrating katchi abadis. There is the option of consensual resettlement into low-cost housing where a nominal amount is paid over instalments.

To those that claim this will encourage more people to ‘illegally’ settle in the capital: they will do so anyway. It is important to remember that people who are leaving their homes — or countries — to live in squalid conditions where they are reminded every day that they are unwanted, are not doing so out of choice, but sheer desperation. The city belongs to every single resident — perhaps even more so the working class that has built it and continues to provide basic municipal services to its affluent residents. Islamabad’s poor are not demanding charity; they are demanding basic dignity which is an equal and inalienable right for every resident of the city — from a refugee to the chairman of the CDA.

Danyal Adam Khan, "Capital violence," Dawn. 2023-05-10.
Keywords: Law , Law and ethics , Law Enforcement , Law reform , Law making