Version published in The Express Tribune on 6 May, 2014, as “The Voice of the Slum-dog.”
Islamabad has recently witnessed a change in the nature of activism. This time, it is not the black-coated lawyers or the white-collar workers taking to the streets, but the invisible people of the streets themselves – the inmates of the katchi abadis, protesting eviction from their homes by the Capital Development Authority.
In a different life, I was working for a network of schools in slums like the ones that are now under threat. These schools existed on the premise that they were not permanent – if the communities were made to move by the CDA, the staff would move too. As it happened, a prominent catering company decided to build a marriage hall near one of the settlements. The municipal authorities gave the community what was considered to be appropriate notice, and within a week the mud houses were empty. Silently, the community and the school were absorbed into a different abadi, where they would not exist as eyesores to dampen high-end revelry.
Now, however, the silence has been broken. These protests illustrate the dynamics of a “post-development” world: poverty is no longer rural and remote, but is urbanizing and finding a voice. According to a UNDP projection, by 2030, 40 percent of urban residents are expected to be living in slums. This means that the planners needs to start thinking more carefully about practical, long-term options for accommodating the people who are often the ones to build the cities.
The many various kinds of people, driven to Islamabad by conflict, disaster or economic need, are familiar with the contours of inequity and injustice. Already, the state has failed to provide them with adequate protection, and they have no formal access to basic services like sanitation, electricity and education. While previously, this was shrugged off as part of their reality, the sheer scale of the current threat has acted as a rallying force. There is a new consciousness about human rights that can be demanded; posters held up by demonstrators read, “We are Pakistani, a home is our right.”
On one hand, they have no formal recourse. The CDA can argue that the katchi abadis exist in defiance of the law. A court ruling, issued in February, provides the authorities with the grounds for removing the slums. The impetus for this came from the suicide attack that shook Islamabad in March. Militants and terrorists, it is said, find safe haven in the gritty mess of informality.
On the other hand, perhaps the definition of legality needs to be revisited – or formal channels of access to justice need to be provided to those holding placards today. Their removal would be a purely cosmetic surgery for a problem having multiple, deep roots. As far as the fear of rising terrorism is concerned, the demolition of the abadis will hardly solve the issue; hundreds of homes will simply fall as collateral damage. The other proposed solution – that of corralling the people into gated settlements – is also a dubious one. Terrorism, as has been witnessed over the past few years, cannot be geographically contained.
In addition, clamping down on the settlements will not make the people disappear. The slums of Islamabad are not uniform; they are peopled by distinct communities who set up their own worlds, representative of their places of origin. They include Afghan refugees, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from both the settled and the tribal areas of KPK, and Punjabi migrants. Some have been in Islamabad for decades, providing pools of labour for domestic and manual work. Since their livelihoods and survival are tied to the city, it is not likely that they will leave.
For reasons of both security and development, it is important to keep track of the communities populating urban spaces; in that, the authorities have been late in mobilizing. However, if neglect has consequences, so does misguided action. At this point, the CDA needs to consider quite carefully whether its actions will help restore order to Islamabad – or simply bring latent tensions and inequities to the surface. This is particularly pertinent in a city where the same authorities turn a blind eye to illegally expanded “private gardens,” in the elite sectors.
Sweeping their homes away would simply mean sweeping people to a different corner; they need to go somewhere. Now, the stakes are higher than the aesthetic worries of a commercial marriage hall – there was panic in this decision for systematic demolition. The fear of the abadis, however, is the fear of reality encroaching upon the grid-lines of Islamabad. It cannot be addressed in haste; nor is postponement a permanent solution. If the dwellers of the slums have found a voice, it is worthwhile to hear them out.