In an ideal world, access to decent housing is the right of every individual; yet in a less than perfect world that we live in, slums and katchi abadis are a part of the urban reality that cannot be ignored. These less than perfect “informal housing schemes” are, nonetheless, far more effective in providing shelter (however modest) to the underprivileged than any of the government based low-income housing schemes.
Kaleem Omar’s article titled, “One million houses a year for low-income groups: ambitious but unrealistic” (The News, April 7, 2008) recognises the challenges faced by the government in its plan of constructing one million low-income houses a year, given our particular economic, social and political contexts. His reservations over the government’s plan find validity in the failure or inadequacy of many government-based low-income housing projects in the past, and unless these challenges are addressed, failure is almost certain in any new similar scheme.
It is almost impossible for even the richest of governments to provide housing for all; in our context it’s even more so. Instead of starting from scratch in a flawed system that prevents the success of new low-cost housing schemes, why not first improve the existing low-income housing stock in which many live in dilapidated conditions?
The National Housing Policy 2001 acknowledges that about 50% of our urban population lives in katchi abadis, slums and squatter settlements (p.25). Since a large urban population resides in these informal settlements without basic physical and social infrastructure, would it not be more realistic to improve their living conditions before launching new housing construction projects?
A suggestion to the Government of Pakistan is, therefore, to include the practice of rehabilitation and upgrading of the existing slums and katchi abadis as part of its “Low-Income Housing Programme.” I emphasise on the word “practice” since the regularisation of katchi abadis in cities started a few years ago, yet it has not yielded any substantial results.
Here I would like to propose adopting the concept, initiated by architect John F C Turner and later backed by many Western theorists, of the role of the government as a “facilitator/enabler” as opposed to that of a “giver/provider” in low-income housing. This realisation opens ways to address the housing problem in a more organic, grassroots and effective manner.
Based on his experience of working with low-income communities in Peru, Turner’s argument is that people have the ability to house themselves far more effectively (than governments) in what the authorities term “katcha or substandard” housing, but isn’t it a step above having no shelter at all?
Take the example of the informal settlements of Islamabad which cater to a large lower income population of the capital. In a study I conducted in 2003, there were 11 regularised katchi abadis (the number now exceeds two dozen), out of which it had been planned that six would be upgraded at their existing sites while the remaining would be relocated to an alternate site in Alipur Farash. (Report on Katchi Abadis, CDA 1999-2000.)
In one of the katchi abadis slated for relocation, called Haq Bahu, in Sector I-11/4, there hasn’t been any improvement in the living condition of the residents in the eight years since this decision was made in 2000. The residents rejected the idea of relocation and one look at this opposition reveals the primary cause to be the unreasonable commuting distance between Farash and areas of occupation, which for most people of this abadi, is the I-11 fruit and vegetable market.
Here the government can play its role of a facilitator by expediting and improving the upgrading and rehabilitation process of the regularised katchi abadis following the widely acclaimed and successful models such the Orangi Pilot Project and Khuda ki Basti which have worked satisfactorily for both existing settlement upgrading and new housing development, respectively, in our local context. By bypassing and simplifying all existing bureaucratic procedures for katchi abadi upgrading and for a fraction of the cost, entire abadis of the poorest of the poor can enjoy upgraded living conditions.
A similar approach can be adopted for new housing projects where the government improves the process and system of house-building from the acquisition of land and small housing loans, access to technical know-how, affordability of building materials and provision of physical and social infrastructure, instead of building low-cost housing units themselves. The government need not become a “developer” or “contractor” of actual houses but a “facilitator” easing the process of homebuilding to aid people with modest means.
The government authorities should explore other options to solve the housing crisis and adopt an informed decision-making approach to ensure that it is really the underprivileged population which benefits from government-based housing initiatives.
Rehabilitation of existing slums and squatter settlements is completely doable, economical and less time-consuming, and bypasses most of the hurdles and challenges that ensure the failure of mega low-cost housing projects. It is not in the act of construction but in that of improving the building process and the existing housing stock that the challenges of low-income housing in Pakistan could be effectively addressed.
The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: email@example.com
The News, 19/5/2008