DAWN – It’s been exactly two months since Maria Yaqub, a 21-year-old college student, saw her home located near Gujjar Nullah turn into rubble. When the bulldozers came, the young woman requested the men to wait for just a minute. “I wanted to take a photo of my late parents that was hanging in a room inside,” she said.
The men gestured for Maria to hurry. She rushed inside. Many of her belongings, her memories, her course books were around her. Overwhelmed with emotion, she decided to grab her parents’ photograph first.
She must have been inside for only a few minutes. But the men outside were apparently done waiting. As Maria was trying to take the photo off the wall, she heard the machines turn on. The giant yellow mechanical claw hit a wall, causing it to collapse immediately.
“I heard screaming and shouting (from outside),” Maria recreated the traumatic day from memory. “The photo frame slipped from my hands. I ran out and escaped with my life — nothing else.”
Tayyababad in Kausar Niazi Colony, next to the Gujjar Nullah, had been home to Maria and her family for generations. “My mother was born here,” she said. “And when she grew up, her rishta also came from this very locality.”
“My sister, brothers and I grew up here, my nieces and nephews were born here,” she said. “And this is also where we lost our parents.”
Maria was just seven when her mother died. Her father passed away soon after, when she was only nine. “Losing one’s parents so early in life makes you grow up before time,” she said.
With the demolition, she lost the last-standing memory of her parents. And that was not all. The family didn’t just lose one house in the area, but two. She was living under one roof with her two elder brothers and their families, while her married older sister and her family were living at another home near the Ziauddin Hospital that was also demolished.
Today, the families are awaiting the meagre compensation of PKR90,000 per home.
“My brothers and sister have been asking for their cheques, but are not getting a straight answer from anywhere,” she said. “Apparently, their IDs are not coming up in the government’s data, although they have legal lease papers for both homes.”
Their homes no longer exist. And they are being told that the government does not have data to support their claims that they ever existed. Yet, according to Maria, they still received an electricity bill for one of the homes for the month during which it was demolished.
“This is a city of utter chaos and lawlessness,” said Maria. “They had also come to bulldoze our homes in 2016. Our Tayyababad home used to have six rooms and they demolished two rooms in the front, saying that there was going to be nullah cleaning and that we had exceeded our limits.” Maria and her family accepted this and started living in the now four-room residence. But years went by and no nullah cleaning took place.
The city “remembered” the nullah again only after last year’s record-breaking rains, and wanted to demolish houses — including Maria’s family home and her sister’s home — in the area.
“My brothers and brother-in-law ran from pillar to post to save our homes, but when they were not making any headway, they decided to move to a rented place,” a dejected Maria said.
Her sister’s home was demolished on April 4. And her family home was torn down on April 27, while she and her siblings were still in the process of moving out. “Many pieces of furniture, clothes and cooking utensils also got buried under the rubble as the machines and their unfeeling drivers went about their work,” she said. But more painful than leaving behind these things was losing their family home.
The family is still dealing with the emotional toll of it all. “There was a little plastic crane among my nephew’s toys,” Maria said. “The first time he saw it after the incident, he was terrified. He started screaming that (the crane) was for breaking homes.
“Preoccupied by our own troubles, we sometimes forget about the trauma our children must be going through.”
The family now lives in a smaller place nearby that they had hurriedly rented for PKR24,000 a month. The Awami Workers Party (AWP) helped them find this accommodation in a rush. No other political party offered any support, Maria said.
Hers is just one of the thousands of families going through this turmoil.
QUESTIONING THE SYSTEM
Head of the Gujjar Nullah Affectees’ Committee Abid Asghar has set up the committee’s office right at the Gujjar Nullah. “I am a former resident who also went through eviction and demolition myself, but I am here and trying to help everyone in the same boat as me find alternative accommodations on rent,” he said.
“There is no hope now after the Supreme Court has shown us no sympathy and cancelled all stay orders,” he said, referencing the court’s recent decision to dismiss an application filed by some affectees of the anti-encroachment operations around Gujjar and Orangi Town nullahs, asking for a stay order. The court directed the authorities to continue the operation, despite the applicants’ lawyer’s arguing that the properties demolished were leased and that they have not been offered appropriate compensations. As architect and town planner Arif Hasan recently noted in a Dawn op-ed, the court also said the leases were fake. “One is at pains to understand how it knows this without an investigation,” he wrote.
“We know the homes will be demolished just like the front row structures have been,” Asghar said. “They did that to make their intentions clear. Everyone is worried and defenceless.”
Asghar is now helping the poor families find accommodations in areas such as Surjani Town, Taiser Town, Khuda ki Basti, Lyari, in the goths, etc. These neighbourhoods are far from the affectees’ Gujjar Nullah residences. Not only are these communities being displaced, they are being sent farther from their places of work and children’s schools.
“A single-room accommodation costs between PKR7,000 to PKR15,000 (a month),” he said. He adds that a two-room residence can cost between PKR12,000 and PKR20,000, and a three-room home between PKR20,000 to PKR28,000. The exception is Surjani Town, where it is possible to find a three-room home for PKR13,000 a month.
“Of course, not everyone here can even afford that,” Asghar said, adding that he fears that the helpless youth might turn to crime to make ends meet. “They see two different kinds of law,” he said, “one for the rich and another for the poor. Now they either fight back and question [the system] or commit suicide.”
Asghar has been questioning the system for many years himself and has faced the consequences.
He has been locked up by the police thrice now. The first time was during Ramadhan, when Asghar was “making noise” and challenging the people “threatening to take away the roofs over our heads.” He was locked up in the Gulberg Police station for about seven hours.
Most recently, he was arrested at a protest near Bilawal House earlier this week. “I completed my hat-trick of arrests on Monday,” Asghar said. He said the affectees and protesters had shown up thinking that Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari would “listen to our pleas and understand our pain”.
Instead, said the activist, they were manhandled, beaten up and arrested for raising their voices. “Even the young activists from the Karachi Bachao Tehreek, who had joined us, were arrested and detained,” he said.
Asghar said the police told them this is no place to hold a demonstration. “(We were told that) if we wanted to protest, we could do it at the Karachi Press Club, but not here,” he said.
June saw multiple such protests that caught the attention of the media and social media. The people losing their homes have no choice but to stand in the sweltering heat, protesting what they see as unfair treatment. They will continue to knock on every door and stand in protest, be it outside the courts, press clubs or political party head offices.
After all, thousands of Karachi’s residents are being impacted. Asghar said that people of several different ethnicities live by the Gujjar Nullah, which has some 32 colonies.
“It is a very big place,” he said. “You find Urdu-speaking families from New Karachi to Shafiq Morrh. From Shafiq Morrh to Cafe Pyala you have the Brohi Baloch. From Cafe Pyala to Landikotal Chowrangi you have the Pakhtuns, the Rajputs, the Kashmiris and the Punjabis. And from Landikotal Chowrangi to the Ziauddin Hospital there are the Serais, the Bengalis and the Burmese.”
EVICTIONS AND DISPLACEMENT
History is repeating itself.
“We have been seeing evictions and displacement in Karachi since the 1950s,” said Dr Nausheen Hafeeza Anwar, a professor at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), and Director of Karachi Urban Labs — ‘a collaborative experiment in critical urban thinking’.
“But the heavy displacement started in the late 1990s to early 2000s, mostly in the time of (Jamaat-i-Islami) Mayor Naimatullah Khan. That’s when the city government received funds for the upgradation of the roads, etc,” she said. She points out that the Lyari Expressway also displaced 80,000 individuals, and only 30,000 could be resettled. Only 33 per cent of the affectees got compensated. And the compensation money — PKR50,000 — turned out to be so little that most of it was used up by the families for transportation and shifting to Taiser Town.