KARACHI: City govt bulldozes lives in pursuit of ‘development’


By Qasim A. Moini

KARACHI, Aug 8: A Pakistani flag limply flutters in the oppressive noontime breeze, precariously placed atop the ugly rubble of destroyed houses. The residents mill about, picking up the pieces and trying to rebuild their lives after the Karachi city government, in an apparent anti-encroachment drive, razed the majority of structures in Korangi Town’s Gahi Fakir Goth on July 25 and 26, 2007.

Residents of the goth say 1,500 to 2,500 people were uprooted by the city government’s action, while according to a Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) statement, published in this newspaper on Aug 3, 5,000 houses were demolished while 30,000-35,000 people were left homeless.

Officials of the Korangi Town and the city government have defended the action and claim sufficient notice was given to the residents to shift elsewhere, as the area needed to be cleared for the construction of a road. But the residents themselves and human rights groups have contested the official claims and say no notice was issued.

“They warned us an hour before. Then 10 to 15 police mobiles pulled up, as well as youths belonging to a political party, some of whom were armed. They started thrashing the men and misbehaved with the women and children. This was around 11am, when most of the men were at work. They took whatever they could grab and loaded it up in their trucks. We understand that demolitions have to take place, but at least we could have been warned,” says the prayer leader of one of the goth’s three mosques, which survived the demolition drive.

“I pleaded with the authorities to give us a little time and not to destroy the mosque,” he adds.

Yusuf Khattak, coordinator of the Child and Labour Rights Organisation, says the goth was established in 1981. He adds that a survey needs to be done to assess the exact extent of the damage. Some residents say its origins go back to 1973; officials in the city government’s land enforcement department, on the other hand, say these claims are incorrect.

‘Goth was here before the factories’

Gahi Fakir Goth lies in the shadow of the National Refinery and is surrounded by factories. Most of its inhabitants are Bengali- and Sindhi-speakers and work as labourers in the nearby factories. According to Naban Brohi, President of the action committee formed by the residents after the city government’s action, the goth predates the factories and was moved to its current location, underneath high-tension wires, after the factories were established.

He also claims that the goth runs parallel to the road from the Chamra Roundabout to the Godown Roundabout, while other residents showed this writer a graveyard located by the Jam Sadik Bridge, where they claimed members of their family were buried and which dated back some 40 years.

Residents claim the removal operation was supervised by the Korangi town nazim, TPO and the president of the industrial estate where the goth lies, whereas the town nazim denies he was present.

“This was a city government operation. The residents were verbally warned two or three days before the operation. They were not issued any notices as they could have used this in court to obtain a stay order against the demolition. It is clearly an illegal occupation. Some of the people (residents) actually attacked the police vehicles during the operation and injured an ASI,” Korangi Town Nazim Arif Khan told Dawn, adding that some of the residents were armed.

Iqbal Qureshi, the DO Estate Management, however, told this reporter that removal notices had been issued to the residents.

“This operation comes under the Tameer-i-Karachi Programme. This particular project has been going on for the past six months. The industrialists of the area had complained that they were facing problems with the movement of trailers. Hence the road needed to be widened. The encroachers had been issued notices, while they were warned verbally as well.”

One of the goth residents claimed that the factory owners had colluded with the land mafia to gobble up the land and get rid of the poor inhabitants, some of whom had spent their entire life’s earnings on building their simple dwellings, now reduced to rubble.

The right to shelter

“The right to shelter is a fundamental right under the constitution of Pakistan. These evictions have been taking place from time to time but the pace has picked up due to the development projects,” Zohra Yusuf, the HRCP’s Vice-Chairperson (Sindh), told Dawn over the telephone.

“Our main objection is to the lack of consultation, as residents are not informed about these (demolition drives) beforehand. If, because of certain projects, the need arises (for these drives), representatives of the community and citizens’ groups should be consulted,” she added.

The question arises that if, as the residents claim, the goth has been around since the seventies or eighties, why did it take so long for the government to take action, after generations of settlers had established themselves there?

“We just want the government to provide us some alternative land for shelter. So many lives have been destroyed here. We cannot even begin to count the losses,” the prayer leader observed.

Daily Dawn August 09, 2007