Why Karachi needs pro-resettlement, not anti-encroachment housing policies

The Karachi Municipal Corporation is currently conducting an anti-encroachment drive aimed at reclaiming illegally occupied land. The operation is likely (and predictably) going to cause many of the city’s urban poor to become homeless overnight.

It goes without saying that evictions commonly – if not exclusively – target the urban poor. There has always been a simplistic assumption baked into Karachi’s master plans that if low-income settlements are somehow eradicated (or hidden), the city will miraculously prosper. What ends up happening time and again is that ambitious development projects do little more than repackage changes in the city’s s built form as progress, and that too at the expense of depriving many a secure space in Karachi.

The problem is not just that anti-encroachment drives are implemented in a spectacularly myopic fashion. (There is rarely ever a plan beforehand regarding where to settle evictees, who are often handed minuscule checks as recompense for losing their homes). It’s that officials see evictions as a magic pill for Karachi’s urban problems.

Instead, anti-encroachment drives need to be understood as but the first step in a broader resettlement approach that prioritizes sustainable living over urban beautification.

Used across postcolonial settings, resettlement programs involve demolishing housing settlements. But, rather than being left to fend for themselves, affected populations are subsequently moved to already earmarked land with existing housing, municipal, civic, education, and health services. In theory, evictees are moved to an entirely different zone where they may benefit from new social relations and economic opportunities. 

Civil society activists might well chafe at this thought given the demonstrable failure of previous resettlement projects in Karachi. One need only look at the fallout from the Greater Karachi Resettlement Plan in the 1960s, which, according to a 2016 United States Institute of Peace report, created underserviced and underutilized housing communities in Korangi and, counterintuitively, caused an uptick in informal housing. Given the progress made by the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), many argue that Karachi needs to contextualize its planning approach, focusing on “slum improvement” in already existing low-income settlements rather than new housing schemes.

The OPP’s successes are undeniable. In addition to improving living circumstances for many at the city’s peripheries, the decades-old initiative has also encouraged planners to think beyond westernized models of urban planning that are impossible to implement.

Even so, there are two reasons why resettlement remains relevant for Karachi.

First, resettlement addresses housing as the complex, socioeconomic urban phenomenon that it is. In pledging to build more units, national housing plans erroneously assume that providing affordable housing is a matter of matching supply and demand. But housing is intertwined with many other urban rhythms including transport, schooling, employment, and commerce, something current plans (like the Naya Pakistan Housing Scheme) fail to consider.

A renewed focus on resettlement can help correct this blind spot – and planners already have a useful roadmap to work form. Take for instance, the 1974-1980 Metroville project which sought to create not just housing colonies at the city’s periphery, but entirely self-sufficient communities. In addition to providing low-income families with open plots, metrovilles allocated land to bungalows, apartments, a commercial high street, on-site administrative services, and schools. The Metroville program failed to take off, not because it was ill-conceived, but because of lacklustre implementation, particularly when it came to providing municipal services. But if revamped – albeit, after accounting for how Karachi has changed in the last four decades – it can offer an important corrective to current policy by emphasizing housing solutions grounded in both spatial and socioeconomic factors.

Second, resettlement can address peripheral urbanization in Karachi, which is currently characterized by a growth in both informal settlements and up-scale gated communities. Neither is sustainable; the former offers a poor standard of living to many and the latter caters to a small slice of the urban population. But under an incremental plan, officials could both provide space for families relocated from urban areas and contribute to the efforts of communities already involved in informally developing the periphery by implementing housing standards, demarcating land for public services, promoting non-profit involvement, and providing bulk infrastructure. Earmarking peripheral land for affordable housing purposes, moreover, would also curb developers from claiming large tracks on the city’s periphery for ultimately inefficient – and financially dubious – projects.

There are, nevertheless, some caveats. Resettlement must not replace anti-encroachment drives as a go-to policy solution. It is impractical to think the Sindh government has the resources to resettle a vast majority of Karachi’s residents. Instead, resettlement should be part of a multifaceted planning approach, used only in circumstances where slum improvement programs are unlikely to produce livable communities due to too much environmental degradation or other concerns – like urban flooding.

Under the current planning regime, an elite vision of the world class city – replete with expressways, parks, and high rises – pulls state and market levers to dispossess the poor and relegate them to the city’s peripheries. But no amount of high visibility projects can replace the economic, social, and cultural value that comes from urban inclusion. For a city to be vibrant and sustainable, it must engender cohesion instead of fragmentation. An integrated approach to housing is a way to achieve that goal and reverse the current reliance on bulldozers that not only deprives the urban poor of shelter, but also excludes them from Karachi at both a physical and socioeconomic level.

Of course, outside the ideal world of urban planning is the real world of politics. A multidimensional planning approach in Karachi is as much a question of political will, financing, and good governance as it is one of targeted and well-considered policy.

But the stakes couldn’t be higher. Millions lack access to crucial services in Karachi, and the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed just how pervasive the city’s problems are. The City of Lights is lucky it has so far avoided catastrophe – but the clock is ticking on its resiliency.