Slum demolition drive exposes housing crisis


Ashrak Khan wore a defeated expression as he surveyed the shanty homes of his neighbourhood in I-11, his house marking the border between those still standing and others now reduced to rubble.

The 45-year-old fruit vendor and his family have lived in the slum since moving from Swabi in the mid-1980s, but they are now among more than 15,000 people facing summary eviction.

“I have no idea what to do, where to go,” he said, surrounded by his four sons. “We are Pakistanis here but we have no rights,” he added, pulling out his ID card to drive the point home.

With no water supply, electricity or sewage, the 2,000 homes that formed the ‘Afghan Basti’ slum have long stood in stark contrast to the rest of the capital. Activists say authorities have launched an ethnic-based smear campaign against residents to try to force them out.

“The IHC has given us directions to remove all the illegal slums and we are carrying out operations across the city,” Ramzan Sajid, a spokesperson for the Capital Development Authority.

To the bureaucrats in the capital and their many supporters among the city’s middle and upper classes, this slum and others like it are a haven for criminal gangs and supposed ‘Afghan’ militants. Their very existence is seen a blot on the landscape of the capital and testimony to the lawlessness that is rampant in some parts of the country.

But planning experts say they point to a wider crisis facing the country’s poor as land prices have sky-rocketed, with family homes in parts of the capital now costing as much as in some cities of Western Europe areas considered ‘slums’ or ‘katchi abadis’.

“You cannot have a city like Islamabad without having a sizeable area for affordable low-income housing,” he said. “It is irresponsible at best and criminal at worst.”

Designed by Greek architect Constantinos Apostolou Doxiadis, Islamabad was founded in 1960 to house the country’s bureaucrats.

Its wide boulevards and grid design mean it offers little accommodation for the lower-classes who work as labourers or domestic servants for the well-to-do.

Political activist Aasim Sajjad Akhtar claimed authorities were running a smear campaign against slum residents, most ethnic Pashtuns who have escaped unrest in the northwest and tribal areas. “They chose to demonise and criminalise the residents, calling them crooks and terrorists. They use their Pashtun ethnicity to create the idea they are terror sympathisers.”

Authorities have rejected such accusations in the past. Residents say they are law-abiding citizens who want to get on with their lives in peace.

While it was largely ignored by the city’s authorities for decades, Afghan Basti was nevertheless a functioning community, with shops, mosques and even five schools funded by non-profit organisations. Many of the first to move to the slum in the mid-1980s had spent nearly three decades improving their houses. Most will now be left with nothing.

There exist laws guaranteeing resettlement or compensation for displaced residents of katchi abadis, but CDA spokesman Sajid said these did not apply as the land had already been sold.

“There is no alternative plan or compensation plan. These people have no right to this land,” he said.

Muhammad Abdullah, a 63-year-old labourer told AFP: “If they destroy our homes, we still need to live somewhere.”

Arif Hasan, an urban planner, blamed much of the rise on speculation by developers, while urbanisation, infrastructure expansion and a recent economic revival have also helped push up prices.

“Land is the new gold,” said Hasan, adding that at least 30 per cent of country’s urban population can only afford to live in.

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