Pakistan has a net housing unit shortfall of 270,000 units per annum, so it is hardly surprising that almost half the total urban population is now residing in squatter or informal settlementsThe concept of adequate housing as a basic human right should not be understood too narrowly. This right implies more than simply providing people a roof over their head. Most poor people may have a place that they call home. Yet they face problems of overcrowding, inadequate sewerage, pollution, inadequate protection from weather extremities, the threat of insecurity and remoteness. Thus a series of such conditions may need to be tackled for providing people adequate housing.
Inadequate housing reflects and deepens the sense of deprivation that the poor feel. This is not surprising given that housing has a crucial role to play in alleviating poverty and determining access to other basic rights. Poorly planned housing often remains beyond the geographic reach of health and educational facilities, and even public transport routes.
The importance of adequate housing is recognised by the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to improve lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers. However, doing so requires focus on issues like legislative reforms to assure security of tenure, whereby people have recourse to protection from forced eviction, harassment and other threats.
For this purpose, quick and affordable measures for conferring title to slums and popular settlements currently without security of tenure are required. Expanding national land and housing registration systems to allow for the tenure rights of the poor are also vital.
Moreover, the costs associated with housing need to be at a reasonable enough level so that the attainment of other basic needs is not compromised. All this requires significant increase in public expenditure for low-income housing programmes. Market regulation to prevent monopolistic pricing may be required as well, particularly in countries where inflation is rising faster then incomes.
Low-income groups can also be provided with access to financial resources, including grants, mortgages and other forms of capital. There is evidence of micro-credit being used to improve and purchase housing conditions in some of the former Soviet republics, the results of which can also be assessed for the purposes of replication by other developing countries. It is also possible to directly provide assistance to low-income groups to develop their own housing finance and savings programmes.
Where the poor rely on self-built housing, governments or even the non-government sector can step in to provide essential resources, including appropriate building materials. There is precedent to such effect within the northern areas of Pakistan subsequent to the destruction wreaked upon local residents by the earthquake in 2005.
However, ensuring housing within a safe and healthy location to everyone is a huge challenge. It requires specific policies for meeting the needs of vulnerable groups like minorities, indigenous peoples, refugees and the displaced. There are also people with special housing needs such as the elderly, persons with physical disabilities and the mentally ill.
It is also vital that women’s rights to inherit housing, land and property are fully respected, particularly in countries where female ownership of land is not too common. Pakistan is again a case in point, where women commonly remain dependent upon their male family members due to their lack of ownership of land, despite the fact that Islamic injunctions and the law of the land expressly provide women property rights.
When developing housing policies for the poor, environmental considerations must be taken into account as well with a view to ensuring that low-income housing is located in a safe and healthy environment. At the same time, priority should be given to providing infrastructure like roads, water and sanitation systems, drainage and electricity for existing low-income settlements.
All the above issues are not merely theoretical principles but instead policy prescriptions based on the imperative of meeting challenges evident on ground across developing countries. Take the case of our own country, which has an estimated total housing demand of 570,000 units per annum, whereas the actual supply is about 300,000 units. This results in a net shortfall of 270,000 units per annum, and so it is hardly surprising that almost half the total urban population is now residing in squatter or informal settlements, or else in informal agriculture subdivision areas.
Squatter settlements actually emerged in Pakistan as a result of the migration of refugees from India in 1947. But since the government had to tolerate these settlements due to its inability to provide adequate housing for the refugee influx into Pakistan, rural migrants and the urban poor also began pouring in during subsequent decades.
While the Katchi Abadi Departments in Punjab and Sindh were established in the mid-1980s, they have not been able to regularise the phenomenon of slums within either of these mega-cities. There are a reported 650 katchi abadis existing in Karachi alone. Yet, under the Sindh Katchi Abadi Act of 1987 and the Punjab Katchi Abadi Act of 1992, settlements of over 40 households can be declared as official katchi abadis provided the locality of their settlement is not required for the development needs of the city and is not found to be in an ecologically dangerous zone.
But despite the seemingly effective criteria to help regularise slum areas, research done by UNESCAP has indicated that nearly 180,000 households in the different parts of Pakistan were facing an impending threat of evictions due to various government projects. Nearly twenty thousand houses are estimated to have been demolished in Karachi alone since the early nineties. Many more residential units were also bulldozed since then to make way for the Lyari Expressway. There is now an ongoing controversy about devolving the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority to the city district government, which is feared to lead to increasingly ruthless evictions. One suspects that the fate of poor residents in Lahore may not be much better, even if readily available data is not identifiable.
Given that the current government, like many of its predecessors, has also announced meeting the housing needs of the poor on an urgent basis, one hopes that some of the issues highlighted above will find their way to the desk of relevant planners during the policy formulation process.
The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Courtesy: Daily Times, 22/4/2008