Struggles series – Under threat of eviction

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Lahore’s Cafe Bol has become a regular meeting place for those seeking to expand their intellectual horizons over a cup of kahva. In particular, their regularly held talks and guest lectures have been well received. Last Sunday, the cafe inaugurated their new ‘Struggle Series’ of guest speakers by inviting Zahid zAli Anjum, President of the All Pakistan Katchi Abadi Alliance, to talk about his organisation and experiences at the cafe in Main Market.
There was a respectable turnout, and the tiny cafe was packed. Zahid Anjum spoke for an hour about his experiences working with and for the inhabitants of urban Pakistan’s many katchi abadis. It is estimated that upwards of 7 million Pakistanis live in some form of ‘katchi abadi’ settlement today-a figure that amounts to more than one-third of all of the nation’s urban dwellers. These informal settlements contain rampant poverty, and most inhabitants lack access to basic amenities.
As narrated by Anjum, katchi abadis in Pakistan’s urban centres came into existence in 1947, as in the aftermath of partition many poor refugees migrated to the cities and needed immediate shelters. Over time, rural-to-urban migration in search of better prospects has greatly increased the number of katchi abadi dwellers. In 1978, a law was passed formally recognising as a katchi abadi settlement of 100 or more houses. Over time, this has decreased and now a katchi abadi is legally defined as a settlement of at least 40 houses.
The Punjab Katchi Abadi Act of 1992 also helped formalise the position of katchi abadis, particularly in Lahore. The All Pakistan Katchi Abadi Alliance was formed in 2003 during Pervez Musharraf’s era. At that time, his government undertook a campaign to forcibly evict the inhabitants of katchi abadis on railways land across the country. The alliance was the first organised national-level resistance by the residents of katchi abadis against the state that aimed to render them homeless. Their agitation led to substantial gains for katchi abadi dwellers, as Anjum recounted, although there is a long way to go.
Scholars have pointed out that although technically katchi abadis occupy land owned by others (usually the state) they are merely claiming the right to shelter from a state that has failed to provide adequately for them. Anjum explained that one of the main scourges of living in an illegal settlement is the constant danger of evictions and demolitions by the state. This is due to the fact that katchi abadis are usually settled on state-owned land. Under the law, the state can decide to evict these residents by claiming that the land is needed for public use.
Anjum claimed that if they were provided alternative housing by the state, eviction with due notice would not be the problem it is now; however this is never done by the state in practice. This was the situation when the All Pakistan Katchi Abadi Alliance was formed to resist forcible eviction.
Thanks to the struggles of the alliance, an amendment was secured in the 1992 Punjab Katchi Abadis Act.
The act had previously recognised as a formal katchi abadi as any settlement that had been occupied since 1985. This was later amended to settlements in existence since 2009. Katchi abadis formally recognised under this act cannot be demolished without due notice. Anjum told the audience that there are roughly 400 katchi abadis in Lahore alone today, of which less than half are formally recognised under the act. After the informative talk, there was a discussion and a short question-and-answer session.
The major theme that cropped up for the audience in the discussion was why the All Pakistan Katchi Abadi Alliance had never contested elections in the areas in which it was active. Instead, the alliance prefers to throw its weight behind whichever mainstream party’s candidate they consider will benefit their community most. Anjum explained that this was because they felt that mainstream political parties, like the PPP, would ensure the maximum audience for voicing their struggles and issues. Cafe Bol’s weekly ‘Struggle Series’ discussion will next have a guest lecture on Fanon.
– The writer is in the fourth year of her Bachelors in Social Sciences from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).