On 11 November 2021, Zakia Bibi, a resident of the Gujjar Nala community in Karachi, passed away from a heart attack after her home was demolished by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) on the Supreme Court’s directives. Just a week before, Karachi Bachao Tehreek (KBT), a housing rights movement in the city, had shared a video of Zakia bibi narrating the inhumane manner in which her house had been reduced to rubble by the KMC while her husband was suffering from a heart attack caused by the stress of losing their home. The image of Zakia and her husband Shahid sitting in the open, with belongings that they had ostensibly spent their lifetimes collecting, and her early demise a week later, lays bare the sharp inequalities in our land and housing markets, the emptiness of new housing programmes promising shelter, and the consistent violation of the fundamental right to dignity to which each resident is entitled.
The bind of the law
While all efforts should be made to limit evictions in the first place (a matter that is all the more complicated with the Supreme Court sanctioning them), Pakistan urgently requires a comprehensive resettlement policy that is legally binding on implementing agencies. In 2001, a draft ‘Project Implementation and Resettlement of Affected Persons Ordinance’ was prepared by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for enactment by provincial and local governments.
In 2002, the EPA also prepared a draft National Resettlement Policy highlighting the limitations of the 1894 Land Acquisition Act and cash compensation, while outlining mechanisms for fair resettlement and rehabilitation. This included initial social assessments, resettlement action plans in case more than 200 people were being displaced, public participation and consultation, and income restoration programmes among other features. Yet neither the ordinance nor the policy was adopted.
So it should have come as no surprise that Zakia Bibi’s family would be forced to live under the open sky without any protection or privacy, given the impossibility of finding affordable, adequate shelter without due compensation. The trouble is: if it could have been logically anticipated, why was this decision even made?
How the globe resettles
Other countries in the region have made more progress. In 2001, in Sri Lanka, a National Involuntary Resettlement Policy (NIRP) was approved by Cabinet, which aims to:
- minimize the adverse effects of involuntary resettlement through an examination of all possible alternatives.
- ensure that people are not impoverished by the acquisition.
- compensate all affected persons (those with or without title) adequately
- offer assistance with livelihoods and improvements in standards of living
- directly involve residents in the rehabilitation and relocation process.
While the Policy still needs to be enacted into law, in instances where it has been used, it has helped improve outcomes for affected communities than would otherwise have been the case. In 2013, the Ministry of Land and Land Development in Sri Lanka also published a Guide for Public Officials on Good Practices around the implementation of the Resettlement Policy. The Guide outlines key legal frameworks, best practices, and principles that can be applied from the land acquisition to the resettlement stage and is an excellent reference point for all stakeholders.
In the same spirit, the UN has published its Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement that very clearly specify preventive strategies and policies, and describe the principles that should be followed prior to, during, and after evictions. Ultimately, as the guidelines suggest, governments need to ensure that those living in poverty are not marginalized further as a result of its policies, a matter that appears to be of no concern to those in power in Pakistan.
Relatedly, in 2013, the Indian government replaced the colonial-era 1894 Land Acquisition Act (still in place in Pakistan) with the ‘Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation, Resettlement Act 2013,’ which aims to ensure that ‘affected persons become partners in development leading to an improvement in their post-acquisition social and economic status.’ More specifically, it requires the government to conduct a survey of affected families (not just landowners but also those affected by the acquisition), prepare a draft rehabilitation and resettlement scheme with a time limit for implementation, and conduct a public hearing prior to making the scheme public.
The Act remains problematic, not least because it can facilitate the acquisition of land by the State for private companies, and does not offer mechanisms to establish livelihoods. At the same time, though, offers communities more control in assessing whether proposed projects serve a public purpose, and recognizes the grave consequences of involuntary displacement with an emphasis on rehabilitation and resettlement.
The urgency of fresh perspective
In Pakistan, as mentioned above, land acquisition for infrastructure projects still predominantly takes place as per the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, which was originally used by the British colonial government to acquire land for ‘public purpose.’ The Act offers no room to question the public purpose the project is serving, the need for acquisition, or the definition of interested/affected persons. At the acquisition stage, threats, intimidation tactics by government officials are not uncommon, and the fear of not receiving any compensation remains real.
In its current form, the Act critically remains silent on the issue of rehabilitation and resettlement, offering no recourse to families who lose their land, are inadequately compensated, and are unable to replace their assets or source of livelihood through the market. In such instances, families experience downward social mobility, are disconnected from community ties, deprived of asset ownership, housing, and/or their source of livelihood. This has been documented in detail across major urban centres in Pakistan by the Urban Resource Centre, Karachi Urban Lab, Karachi Bachao Tehreek, the All Pakistan Katchi Abadi Alliance, and the Awami Workers Party, among others.
It is critical to revisit and amend this colonial-era law and incorporate provisions for resettlement and rehabilitation. In cases where land acquisition is absolutely necessary, people should be resettled close to their homes prior to demolitions, compensated for their losses, and offered rehabilitation assistance for any loss in assets and livelihood. If we carry any hope of building a ‘just’ society, we must ensure that we never again lose anyone like Zakia bibi to the cruelty of state-led evictions.
Fizzah Sajjad, Ph.D. candidate, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK