This article presents an alternate point of view with respect to the I-11 evictions of slum dwellers. It is always important to recognize that a complex issue has many sides to it. PTH does not essentially agree with all the arguments made in the article.
Recently the issue of I -11 evictions in Islamabad has blown up all social media. Its a welcome development to see an attempt at raising of political conscious, active mobilization, rationalization of realpolitik and support of the marginal – for this I applaud all the political and civil institutions engaged in this very worthwhile and urgent cause. However, amongst the heat of engagement there are certain variations on both side of the debate that to me seem important to at least observe and devote a bit of our thought to. My purpose here is not to side with anyone or pass moral judgement but a slightly distanced analysis of the situation that requires emotions to be somewhat reined in.
First off the approach of the state and the segments in support of this development. Inhumane in many respects this approach is nonetheless not illogical. The logic being the same that is used to justify gentrification of property and land. While it is ruthlessly capitalistic in its approach it is based on an economic reality. Islamabad is growing exponentially. With a semblance of more secure life and priority as a state asset (among other factors like housing the parliament and foreign officials), Islamabad has all the edges it needs to be an attractive and safe commercial and housing investment. This is clearly evidenced by the concentration of head offices in the city of International organizations (channeling huge amounts of foreign aid) and more recently of local corporations and financial institutions. Also indicative is the exponentially fast development of middle and upper class housing sectors stretching to D-11 last time I visited the city and a huge influx of middle class skilled labor. Universities, hospitals, schools, shopping mega malls are sprouting up with a fierce determination not characteristic of Islamabad. So in a way the need for eviction i.e. the rising property value of the slum is generated by the lifestyles of many of the same middle and upper middle class people that might be engaged in political activism to protect it. That and factors like the mandatory state emphasis in Islamabad, the capital of a destabilized country with behemoth security problems. Point is this is an inevitability of living in a capitalistic economic and political system and so far as we don’t have an objection to that it makes any moral judgement on the state’s act redundant. We can’t single out the state for something we are all responsible for directly or indirectly. What we need to realize is that this is not wrong or unexpected according to the norms of our society – it is however an injustice.
What’s the distinction? The distinction is that while social processes like gentrification might be inevitable consequences of Islamabad’s political economy, a state can only call itself a state if it upholds the citizenship rights of its members among which the right of property is perhaps paramount. Evictions are not a new phenomenon, and though tragic there are approaches to the problem that might be more humanistic. Way more humanistic than the outright brutality and murder to which the Pakistani state has resorted to. Even in countries like India that resemble our social makeup and uptil recently shared our economic woes, approaches like resettlement and alternate housing are becoming mandatory. The method employed is to mandate the developer into constructing a house for every family being evicted. This cost can then be passed on to consumer, the elite trying to move in on the space, and all in all the issue is dealt with in a fairly capitalistic way. Again emphasis is on fairness according to the needs of a system we all have agreed to abide by. Whether this is the right way to go and whether the invaluable personal and cultural loss that accompanies such evictions is justified are questions that are outside the practical frame of reference of a strictly capitalist point of view (not my point of view btw). This should have been the starting point for the state to resolve things in a fair and just manner and to approach the table once with a little bit of respect and dignity for its disenfranchised members. I am pretty sure even more humane alternatives could have been arrived at, I am just highlighting the absolute minimum.
On the other side of the equation are people rallying for anti government protests and demonstrations to try to oppose this decision. Their efforts are valiant and in humanist service of their fellow man. Of this they probably cannot be doubted and should be additionally supported by those neutral to the debate because they represent a move towards a more active and conscious society where citizens have more agency and can hold their state accountable. That being said here is impending ‘but’. Though most of their actions are positive developments for a vibrant society I have but a few questions regarding their methods. Firstly the emphasis on popular political and social leaders. While intelligent charismatic leaders and figures essentially determine the success of a movement, I am surprised that we dont see more representation of the community under threat itself. The people of the settlement. The side bargaining with the government (and it has to be a bargain because Pakistan is not yet a perfect state by any means and real lives and futures are at stake in the here and now) is the intellectual upper middle class and almost no one from the affectees themselves. What are their demands? Do they think there is a way to solve this? Not discounting their loss is there a way to move forward from this situation that maybe improves their lot in other ways not available before? Would they prefer alternate housing? Based on what demands? For this to happen the state should be willing to listen which is currently not the case. But inclusion is also necessary for the proper redressal to the damage that has already been done and that might continue.
Linked to it is my second point that again raises issues of inclusion. I will offer one example to elaborate. I read a feminist take on the issue by a scholar. The view being forwarded was that it is great because fighting for the cause of the disenfranchised is inherently feminist (a very accurate and apt view if I may add). This to the author was represented by women out in the open protesting and finally getting to come out of their patriarchal homes. Here again I feel the discourse of an educated elite is being projected onto a population that remains surprisingly unrepresented by its own members. Feminism itself has gone a revaluation and is in its third wave, where the idea is to provide the actor agency,not determine their course of action. What if the women did not enjoy or want this experience? Like some women choose to veil – saying that they might be liberated from this decision is no less facist than the patriarchal norms oppressing them in the first place. We should fight for the right to choose. Not make these choices for those we are fighting for. We need to shed this messiah complex that plagues Pakistani politics on every level and keeps it from being truly representative.
In conclusion I would urge all people engaged with the issue to remember to look at the context. Separating the state from the broader social reality is an abstraction that is slightly skewed and tinged with a little self-righteousness that fuels passions rather than rationality. On the other hand it does not mean in anyway that state should be allowed free reign without repercussions. This is an important fight for the very concepts of civil rights and citizenship. But in the heat of battle we should never lose sight of the interests and welfare of real people with very real needs that are at stake. The maximum of effort should be directed towards their stake and a realistic approach to mitigation and conflict resolution couched in the same paradigm on which Pakistan broadly operates. Sustainable change is gradual and incremental – alternative can be visualized in containers and much brutality resulting in even more suffering for the actually vulnerable.