The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

932270-eviction-1438715361-996-640x480This 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.

Hamza Khalil

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.

  • Ammar Rashid

    I’m sorry Hamza, but this is a typically Pakistani, ‘leg-pulling’ sort of response which steers clear of actually engaging with the nuances of the matter that it claims to address and has this forced neutrality that serves to effectively render as understandable the destruction that has occurred.

    Let me be clear; to paraphrase Desmond Tutu, in situations of injustice, neutrality amounts to siding with the oppressor. For me, this forced, detached ‘logical’ approach is a precise example of that. People’s lives and communities been destroyed, children have been killed, dozens arrested and thousands more lives are at risk, but for you the correct approach seems to be to ‘rein in’ our emotions when we analyze this. No marks for guessing who wins if that approach is applied across the board.

    ‘Emotions’ of the kind roused in recent weeks are the only thing that have kept tens of thousands of other slum-dwellers safe thus far from this kind of brutality. ‘Emotions’ are what cause people to say no, the deaths of babies, the violent humiliation of women and the gassing of young children for the sake of ‘capitalist development’ are perhaps a tad unacceptable. If ALL people were convinced (like millions, including you, already appear to be) that such things should just be handled purely ‘rationally’ and ‘logically’ and, my favorite, ‘as per law’, a great many more people in this blighted land would be even more destitute, homeless and dead. So no, excuse me if I don’t ‘rein in’ my emotions.

    On to the other arguments you’ve made, which I found very difficult to follow despite their claims to logic and reason. I will attempt to address them to the best of my rational abilities and the maintenance of the desired respectfulness that was implored.

    1 – “The government’s actions are based on ‘economic reality’.” If by ‘economic reality’ you mean the economic interests of state elites, bureaucratic authorities and large private property developers then absolutely, sure. But for me, the definition of ‘economic reality’ would certainly include the economic needs of the labor class needed to sustain all economic activity (or do the housing, food, and health required to keep the laboring millions alive come under economic unreality?) The people being evicted and rendered homeless are those whose labor keeps this city running; the hundreds of thousands who build, cook, clean, drive, garden, wash and construct everything required to maintain the consumption habits of elites and middle classes who lord it over them. Evicting people will not eliminate those jobs or the meager means of those who perform those jobs, it will simply create more destitution.

    At current wage levels (economic reality), the working classes required to keep the city functioning (also economic reality) cannot fulfil their need for housing (also economic reality). The state is doing literally NOTHING to fulfill this need either in Islamabad or the rest of the country (there has been one small low-income housing project in Islamabad the past 15 years, also just a result of public pressure). All it is doing is evicting people from what they have built to fulfill this need themselves, and pushing them further down the ladder of impoverishment. So, no these are not actions based on ‘economic reality’ but more the ‘economic interests’ of the elite. There’s a huge difference.

    Furthermore, you have largely neglected to consider the actual reason property prices are shooting through the roof – because of rampant private real estate development in recent years, whereby state elites and propertied elites (like DHA, CDA and Malik Riaz etc) have colluded to acquire millions of acres of state lands for large elite and upper middle class housing projects, the vast majority of which end up lying empty for years as large estate developers and investors engage in rampant speculation to drive up prices. The end result? Thousands of acres of unused, un-taxed gated developments across major cities, massive land and resource underutilization, booming property prices, an entirely-nonexistent low-income housing market and mushrooming slums as a result. Which are then brutally evicted of their unwashed thousands because supposedly more gated communities and plazas are needed. This has everything to do with power, little to do with economic reality.

    2- “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” – I don’t even understand where this sentence came from other than a deliberate, reductive and depressingly familiar attempt to cynically undermine and de-legitimize the handful of activists resisting the evictions as out-of-touch elitists. Do you actually mean to suggest that the lifestyles of the 20-odd activists (because it is literally that many, if not less) fighting on the ground against evictions are causing rising property prices and evictions? What on earth made you formulate that assumption? Did you interview these people to know what lifestyles they are following? Are they property investors engaged in speculative trading? Are they working for DHA, CDA or Malik Riaz (you know, the folks *actually* responsible for rising property prices)? Are they avid Centaurus-goers and Chanel-bag wearers? Do you know, for instance, that many of these culpable activists are from FATA, Khuzdar, Qila Saifullah and Dera Ghazi Khan (not exactly the elitist mass-consumers you may have conveniently caricaturized them in your head as)?

    If perhaps, you are suggesting that, as urbanites who consume to any degree, they are part of the same development trajectory that results in capitalist displacement, are you suggesting that one cannot oppose any attempt at active oppression if one’s location makes one systemically complicit? What on earth does one do then (since we are all, you know, complicit in letting this system function via our very existence)? Become hermits?

    3 – “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.” Those of us fighting evictions do have a very serious objection to this capitalist economic and political system. That is precisely WHY we are fighting evictions. And I’m sure many other supporters do as well, they just don’t have the language or theoretical apparatus required to frame it in those terms. These kinds of battles are among the few ways we have of demonstrating the excesses of this system and pushing back.

    4 – “We can’t single out the state for something we are all responsible for directly or indirectly.” Really? If we followed that dictum we would never be able to stop any abuse of power. The state is EXACTLY what one should single out. Because it’s the STATE! It is an overwhelmingly strong repository of power that is created and sustained precisely to protect the interests of all who lie within its bounds (which it fails in doing for the vast majority of the time). This idea that we all are complicit in injustice and hence blame should be distributed relatively equally is reminiscent of religious superstition about man’s individual sinfulness and culpability and the woefully-convenient quasi-spiritual dictum about ‘changing oneself before changing society’. No one other than the state is taking thousands of billions in taxes to govern this country. No one other than the state has an apparatus of hundreds of thousands of people to actively administer society and cater to its needs. No one else is taking money from the poor to allow them to build their homes and then destroying them when they need to build something else. It is the state that does all this because it has the power to. And that is why it is the state that must PRINCIPALLY be held accountable (alongside other powerful actors).

    5- “I am surprised that we don’t see more representation of the community under threat itself. The people of the settlement.” Several things about this allegation of ‘substitutism’. First of all, I don’t know if you’ve been following our activities, but the vast majority of the time, it is the katchi abadi residents who speak for themselves (go browse any of the thousands of photos and press releases we have on our pages). Around 25 of our 30 candidates in the postponed Islamabad local government elections were katchi abadi residents. Our role is, and continues to be, to facilitate them as per our capacities, to gradually be able to represent and speak for themselves entirely. We perform that buffer role because no one else does or cares to. We perform it for people who need those more educated and adept in the intricacies of statecraft, law and media, etc, all instruments for staking one’s claim to resources in this day and age. And in a society like ours, where the poor are regarded as non-human by the state and upper classes, it is a critical and necessary role, however ‘patronizing’ it might seem to some.

    But there’s a larger issue here that pertains to facts of the issue that you did not care to discover and find out more about. It is about fear and intimidation, again from the state that you have chosen to look at relatively favorably. Dozens of people in the abadi are still under arrest since the operation, their bails rejected because they are supposedly terrorists who used stones to defend their homes. Over 2000 have been charged under anti-terrorism laws for resisting demolition, which can carry life and execution sentences. The father of one of the children killed during the operation was abducted by the police for several days and made to sign a statement saying his kid died of illness elsewhere. His uncle, one of our party workers, is still being hounded mercilessly in case he decides to open his mouth. Other people have been told if they are so much as seen with an AWP badge or flag, they will be locked up.

    You ask why we’re the ones speaking for the slumdwellers in public? It’s because they are scared they will be violently repressed and locked up for speaking out. Which, going by the track record of the state, is a perfectly reasonable and understandable fear. So please excuse us if we don’t fit an idealized model of organic working class leadership. There are ground realities to deal with.

    6- “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?” – Please don’t mansplain feminism to a woman deeply engaged in a politics of feminist praxis. It is really not your position as a man to tell her what third wave feminism is and what its practice should be like. This woman you speak of has had more sustained interaction with the communities you speak of than you and she has in-depth experience of what she is talking about, i.e, the necessity of women capturing public space in examples of classic patriarchal societies like ours.

    On the actual issue of veiling and public spaces, I think we really need to move beyond these post-modern platitudes about ‘oh many women don’t want to be outside’. Sure they don’t and no one should ever force them to, or ‘make these choices for them’ (as no one among us, including the woman in question, is doing). But please don’t suggest that women in deeply segregated societies/communities are ‘as well off’ as other women. The historical aggregation of anthropological research from around the world tells us quite clearly – the more gender-segregated the societies, the worse-off the women, ceteris paribus. Segregated societies around the world have universally worse conditions for women – including higher female infanticide, lower female lifespans, lower female literacy, lower female assets, higher domestic violence, lower female employment, lower women in leadership, more forced marriages, the list could go on. And it is obvious why it is so. The vast majority of the distribution and acquisition of resources and skills takes place in the public sphere – from education, to healthcare, to access to justice, to economic assets. When women (or the poor, or minorities, or blacks, eg) are excluded from the public sphere, they lose out in a big way. So no, advocating (not forcing, please note) for more women in the public sphere is not ‘as fascist’ as the patriarchal norms oppressing them. No one is talking about burqa bans here, let’s not conflate completely separate ideas for the sake of argument.

    7- “In conclusion I would urge all people engaged with the issue to remember to look at the context.” – In conclusion, I would urge you to do the same. The context is a state that brutally uses force on its people to serve elites and cover up its grave past mistakes. The context is a countrywide housing crisis in which 40-50 million people in this country live in pitiful conditions because there is no damn alternative and the state provides for no one other than some of its employees. The context is a country in which generals and private property developers make billions off unused property schemes that displace tens of thousands without a murmur of opposition. The context is a deregulated banking sector that gives less than Rs. 4 billion a year in housing loans when the actual need is hundreds of billions. The context is a broken and colonial judicial system in which one corrupt judge can arbitrarily decide, while ignoring all the relevant laws and policy frameworks, that hundreds of thousands of people are suddenly persona-non-grata and have to be clinically removed like a cancer. The context is an unaccountable ‘development’ institution (the CDA) that has a budget larger than Balochistan but operates without any people’s representation to hold it to account (and squanders and embezzles billions in public resources in the process. The context is a depoliticized, indifferent society that cheers on the destruction of poor people’s homes, thinking it is a mark of progress and development, thinking it is the poor they have to fear from, not the military, bureaucratic, political and religious elites who have successfully managed to pit the worse-off against each other instead of against them. The context is a society that looks at people trying to resist oppression with ‘oh they Must have their own stake in this, otherwise what the fuck is wrong with them? They’re probably just a bunch of out-of-touch douche-bags.’

    I apologize again for letting my ‘emotions’ in this. This is all deeply personal for me. The truth is, I don’t see a separation between the personal and the political. The people who lost (and are losing) their homes are not some abstract poors that I’m trying to give charity to, they are my friends and associates, those I have worked, laughed, fought, cried and lived with. I have eaten their food, played with their children, been to their funerals and weddings, been witness to their sorrows, triumphs, and near-constant oppression by the state and society that surrounds them. I was witness to the violent destruction of their lives by the state that is supposed to protect them. The emotions of those who were witness to all this (as well as the other multitudes of ongoing oppressions) are deeply important, if we are to prevent this from occurring again and become marginally more human as a society.