Karachi being the biggest city of Pakistan currently has around 18 million residents as per unofficial statistics and still increasing as there is no check on the number of immigrants each year. From 6 million immigrants who came to Pakistan in 1947, 2 million Afghan refugees, illegal Bangladeshis and Biharis who came after the fall of Dhaka and millions of local immigrants from rural or less developed areas, the city is suffering from a severe shortage of proper or legal housing facilities, and around 50% dwell in slums or squatter settlements.
Distinguishing between the types of katchi abadies would be important here, as there is not just a single type. These abadies can broadly be divided into two categories; the old totally unplanned abadies that were established at the time of the Indo-Pak partition and the ones that came into existence because land-grabbers mobilised and provided houses to the constantly rising number of immigrants, especially with a boom in the Industries. After partition the government was not equipped to deal with the immigrants and hence and therefore people on self help basis provided themselves with whatever they could muster. However, instead addressing the issue, the government continued to neglect this sector and also neither checked the rapid rural to urban migration nor provided enough housing facilities. Thus, government negligence towards this factor, combined with the land-grabbers has not helped much, as land-grabbers taking advantage continuously kept on the move, grabbing more and more government land turning it to slums/katchi abadies.
The desperate immigrants on the other hand, who come looking for a place to live, find these katchi abadies to be the best solution for them. They are comparatively cheap, and more importantly can be found close to wherever they work and that too without paperwork. At places the encroached houses would be almost cantilevered above the Lyari River, with their foundations sunk deep in the sewage water, but this does not deter someone set on making it work no matter what the circumstances.
The situation instead of getting better has worsened as the government being merely disinterested in addressing the root cause, regularised these settlements, giving more incentive to the land-grabbers. If this regularisation process had just been followed by the provision of sufficient low-income houses as well as a check on rural to urban migration, perhaps it would have been better, but since it was not so, encroachments continued.
Moreover, involvement of political parties like MQM and PPP did not help much either, who instead of finding a true solution wanted to keep the people in the same conditions for either appeasing them to retain their vote banks or to keep them deprived of a better infrastructure and environment.
According to the Orangi Pilot Projects survey, conducted in 2002, the total number of katchi abadies was 539, whereas a news report dated June 27, 2010 claims, “There are around 1,293 spatial settlements, out of which the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority has regularised only 500, while the remaining are being processed for regularisation.”
As a nation it appears we have a penchant for short term answers. We accept the government’s shortcomings and give it leeway to implement such short sighted solutions. There are several reasons for referring to the regularisation of katchi abadies as short term, foremost being that these katchi abadies are hubs for several illegal activities, starting from smuggling of something as mundane as cloth to drugs and ammunition. The abadies are nurseries for most criminal gangs and activities, since hiding in the criss-crossed lanes is not difficult. Also worth mentioning are the terrorists, who were arrested from several katchi abadies over the past few months, despite that in certain areas even law-enforcement agencies fear to go, or are supposedly scared to go.
Other causes to oppose katchi abadi regularisation include lack of planning and building regulations. Since a lot of the poor settlements are unplanned, often there is no provision for modern vehicles to pass through, which gives rise to the question what would happen in case the government has to provide aid to the local residents. These settlements are bustling with three, four and even six storey buildings, poor construction and bad planning with hardly any space between the lanes for a big car let alone a truck to pass through. In such circumstances even if a fire breaks out, the fire tenders have a tough time reaching the inferno.
With such conditions prevalent, we have a disaster looming round the corner, which may strike us any day. It may look fine and noble at the first glance to regularise the slums, filled with criminal activities, combined with bad planning and bad construction, but in reality and long term it is not so. Hopefully, the government would realise this soon, as well as the supporters of the idea, who consider the word slum should be reserved for the West, as slums are considered physical and morally bankrupt, but our katchi abadies are only physically dilapidated and not socially decrepit. A farsighted approach is needed, and more houses of course.