KARACHI: Muhammad Adil, a rickshaw driver, built his semi-concrete house on the bank of the Gujjar Nullah canal in Karachi 18 years ago. He says he legally bought the plot and made sure all utilities were paid, but now his family must leave the house as part of the city government’s drive to clear settlements near the port city’s waterways.
Adil is not alone. The homes of thousands of families are being razed as Pakistan’s largest and most densely populated city cracks down on buildings it says were constructed using illegally granted lease agreements that have, over the years, led to the shrinking of canals that would relieve Karachi of rainwater during the monsoons and prevent urban flooding.
The Supreme Court cleared the way for evictions last year after monsoon rains overwhelmed infrastructure in the city of 15 million and led to dozens of deaths.
But canal squatters like Adil say they have nowhere to go.
“I purchased a plot with Rs125,000 ($784) which was my life savings. I constructed this house over many years, getting all the utilities legally, but now I’m told it’s illegal,” Adil, a father of five, told Arab News last week.
“They gave us a cheque of Rs90,000 for six months’ [rent] but didn’t give enough time to search for a house.” he added. “My wife has kidney failure, and my son is disabled,” he said, adding that it would take weeks to cash the cheque.
In the 1960s, Karachi had the tallest building in South Asia, an inner-city rail service, vibrant nightlife, and booming tourism. But more than five decades later, the city’s infrastructure has failed to keep pace with a population that has increased more than threefold, leaving it vulnerable to rains during the monsoon season which runs from July through September.
The city has 41 drains, or nullahs, that would protect it from annual flooding. The largest one is Gujjar Nullah, which starts in the New Karachi area and runs 13 kilometers south to merge near Liaquatabad with the Lyari River before it reaches the Arabian Sea. The other two major drains are the 3.5-kilometer-long Mahmoudabad Nullah and 11-kilometer-long Orangi Nullah.
Bashir Siddiqui, an anti-encroachment director at the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, who is spearheading the drive to clear the city’s nullahs, said his department had already cleared 58 concrete houses from the banks of Mahmoudabad Nullah. Authorities, he said, had cleared 3,000 “soft encroachments” from Gujjar Nullah and were now planning to remove 4,000 concrete buildings. The drive will affect at least 4,000 families at Gujjar Nullah alone, according to KMC.
“Karachi is undergoing a change. The city will become beautiful, and this is a gift of the Supreme Court,” Siddiqui said, adding that after Gujjar Nullah, authorities would focus on clearing Orangi Nullah. “A 30-feet road will be constructed on each side [of Guhhar Nullah] and the stream will be converted into a flood water stream,” he said.
Civil activists say the drive is ill-planned and carried out without consulting residents.
“Those whose houses are being removed were not properly briefed and there are also discrepancies in the counting,” Urban Resource Center director Zahid Farooq told Arab News.
He said authorities had, for example, counted over 300 houses as 75 because they relied on Google Maps which did not accurately mark houses in Karachi’s highly congested neighborhoods.
“We are not against development, but people should be evicted after proper compensation and their settlement in the nearest possible area as per international norms,” Farooq said. “Displacements disturb the social, educational, economic and political life of the residents.”
Residents also say they were not aware of the governments’ plans and many still had not been compensated.
“I had a one-room house, they razed it. Where will we go now?” resident Matina Iqbal said, bursting into tears. “Where will we go, we don’t know.”
Farzana Yousuf, who has been living in New Karachi for the past 40 years, asked the same question: “Where will we go?“
“Where will we make another home? For how long will they give us money for rent?” she said, adding that her breadwinner son earned only Rs2,000 ($13) a week.
“They should throw me in front of the machines,” Yousaf said. “I will not move.”