Evictions as Urban Violence: Karachi’s Violent Planning Regime

By Azka Khan, Soha Mackhtoom, Fizza Qureshi, Kanza Rizvi, Arsam Saleem, Kevin Shi and Muhammed Toheed

1 September, 2019

Demolitions in Machar Colony after an eviction drive in January 2019 (Source: KUL)

A child crawls on a pile of rubble that was formerly his home in Machar Colony, an informal settlement located in Karachi’s District West. Trapped by the debris and violence wrought on by Karachi’s latest evictions, he is one of many victims left homeless with hundreds of thousands still facing the threat of displacement. With a population of 16 million and population density of 24,000 people per square kilometer, Karachi rests awkwardly in the Pakistani governing class’s imagination. As Pakistan’s largest metropolis and undeniably indispensable to its economy, Karachi contributes approximately 25% to the country’s GDP. But Karachi has also been Pakistan’s security laboratory for decades with several operations launched to weed out so-called ‘terrorists’, and planning agendas initiated to transform it into a world class city. But for this to happen, new things must be built, and to create space in a city where land is already scarce, something must be destroyed.

Since November 2018, the government has initiated a series of evictions that target shops and homes in the inner city, often those belonging to working-class populations residing on precarious land tenure arrangements. Shops in key markets including the famous Empress Market, have been demolished and residents in various informal settlements have either received eviction notices or government officials have put up banners with signs declaring the onset of a project that will inevitably necessitate displacement. Speaking at a public event, the Karachi Commissioner, Iftikhar Shallwani, stated, “… it was a difficult task, but thank God we were able to [demolish] all those shops…. without any casualties.”  The Karachi Commissioner’s statement demonstrates that violence is often imagined as a direct physical impression upon a body — one that may result in human injury or death. This understanding of violence is too narrow and needs to be critically challenged.

Johan Galtung, in his seminal article on violence and peace research, coins the term “structural violence” as a way of explaining the range of violence that may not be as spectacular but has equally destructive effects. While personal violence might be more visible and conspicuous, structural violence is more insidious for its lack of these qualities. It is often normalized through urban planning agendas to the extent that even asking for redress for things such as land and housing becomes an act of rebellion.

Women protest the demolitions in Machar Colony in January 2019 (Source: KUL)

Nearly 62% of housing in Karachi is informal and this means a majority of residents live with an added sense of precarity. In Machar Colony, households face eviction precipitated by the revival of an inner-city transport project, the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR – See Map). This revitalization plan for a defunct mass-transit system puts at risk 28 different lower- to lower-middle income settlements spread across Karachi. In January 2019, dozens of commercial and mixed-use structures were demolished to clear land for the KCR’s new tracks. There was an obvious state of physical and psychological warfare. Women especially felt threatened and several were injured at the hands of the police. This encounter between police and community members triggered a 14-hour sit-in protest to resist the demolitions – where thousands of residents gathered and blocked a main artery that leads to the city’s financial and commercial center.

Evictions as a form of structural violence have psychological and other health implications. In Ghareebabad, another informal settlement facing eviction in District South, residents have repeatedly mentioned traumatic distress, anxiety, deteriorating health, and even death in extreme cases. These impacts are significantly greater for women and children. For instance, a middle-aged woman after seeing her home bulldozed, was stricken with grief, fell into a coma, and died a few days later. The state has added to this uncertainty as different authorities give conflicting information and residents do not know whom to believe.

In March 2019, the Pakistan Railways issued a 7-day eviction notice in Ghareebabad with reference to an older Supreme Court decision. This immediately created an environment of panic in the neighborhood. The action was criticized by the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), an arbitration body created by the Supreme Court, which was itself in the middle of adjudicating this matter out of court between the residents and the Ministry of Railway. Seven days passed and nothing happened. But it is still unclear whether something stopped the evictions or whether the notice was not real in the first place. During all of this confusion are hundreds of residents and hundreds of thousands more across the city waiting with bated breath for bulldozers that may or may not come. For the state machinery this might be a show of power, but its effect is immense uncertainty and anxiety for ordinary citizens. Such uncertainty also impacts the financial decisions of residents under threat. With assurances received from different authorities over the years, people have invested their hard-earned money into auto-constructing and maintaining their houses, only to be faced with repeated threats of eviction.

Map of KCR & number of households facing threat of evictions (Source: KUL)

Eviction is inherently violent not just because something physical is destroyed but also because of the sense of community, networks and access it displaces and ruptures. For residents in informal settlements like Ghareebabad and Umar Colony, their location near the city center is key to their livelihoods. Homes are close to jobs, schools, hospitals, and markets. In evicting a resident from this network and resettling them elsewhere, the government is also removing them from the structure that supports their lives and hopes. An aspiring university student noted that if she and her family were to be evicted, she would not attend the university of her choice in Karachi as the family would be forced to move to Punjab. Another woman, a young mother, stated “There are no safe spaces in Karachi. All our relatives live here in Umar Colony. If all of us lose our homes, no one will be able to help one another.

Ghareebabad, an informal settlement along the KCR track (Source: KUL)

Evictions threaten to rupture the urban social fabric that communities have established over decades of living together. This includes cultivating a sense of belonging to a place by virtue of having roots that go back intergenerationally, constituting networks of social connectivity, and acquiring a sense of familiarity that engenders gendered geographies of comfort, for instance enabling women access to mobility and safety. It is these things that imbue a place with meaning.  The growing value of urban land and associated planning logics that attempt to rationalize land use, is happening at the expense of ordinary city dwellers for whom land plays the important role of shelter, leisure and workspace. As cities like Karachi become prime sites for value extraction and capital accumulation, the states arbitrary and violent planning interventions for transforming the city essentially threaten to rob people of their sense of belonging by putting them out of place.

Azka Khan, Soha Mackhtoom, Fizza Qureshi, Kanza Rizvi, Arsam Saleem, Kevin Shi and Muhammed Toheed are Research Associates with the Karachi Urban Lab (KUL). KUL is an interdisciplinary and collaborative platform for research. It’s mission is to nurture and develop ideas that enable explorations and connections between research, teaching, public policy and advocacy. KUL is housed in the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. Further details about its projects and team are available on the KUL website.

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