In millennial Karachi, holding on to land and homes and accessing public space for labor, has become a vital struggle. Land displacement is an increasing, and sometimes constant, source of anxiety for the urban poor and marginalized communities, but some of the lower-to-middle income communities too. Based on 24-months of research (2018 - 2020) covering 16 study sites, we document how land is governed and acquired for infrastructure and urban development projects; how such projects impact people’s lives and how they resist displacement. Land displacements take place through different temporal contexts and generate complex, multiple effects of waiting, expectations, inertia and defeat. We consider multiple durations of land displacement: people living in fear of displacement; people displaced and resettled on Karachi’s rural-urban margins; and people relegated to an endless period of waiting for compensation and resettlement from the state.
Much of the urban land in Karachi exists in the interstices of 'illegal' and 'informal' practices and is contested, whereby people’s tenure status remains in perpetual limbo. Informality is entangled with colonial genealogies of bureaucratic-legal land governance, with documents serving as a crucial means of establishing legibility of land ownership. It works as a strategic narrative for the state to justify land displacement for the betterment of the ‘public good’. This dovetails today with a discourse on ‘encroachment’ deployed by the media, bureaucrats, politicians, and judges, that has silenced the voice of the urban poor and marginalized communities, leading to a disavowal of their rights and struggles. This discourse is aligned with a new infrastructural and urban development/planning regime that represents an emerging pro-growth coalition of provincial, local, and federal governments, as well as real estate developers and multilateral international organizations, that are reshaping Karachi. As demonstrated through an examination of laws, legal practices, and discourses around land acquisition, we show that ‘justice’, in the procedural sense, is not always in the best interests of the urban poor and marginalized citizens’ rights to property, to land tenure and to livelihood.
Fundamentally, land displacements have severe consequences: loss of home, livelihoods, community, and social networks; engendering a permanent state of anxiety and uncertainty; increasing physical, social, and environmental vulnerabilities; compounding gender inequalities; and irrevocably damaging social and economic mobility. For many of the households, individuals, and communities we have worked with, displacement has shattered their past, scattered their present, and made their future uncertain. This project has also looked at resettlement by examining the 'afterlives' of displacement where people are relocated to the rural-urban margins. Forced displacement is an intensely traumatic and violent experience with differentiated impacts on men and women, and the wellbeing related consequences for those who have experienced displacement or are at risk of losing their land. The wellbeing of groups with disproportional vulnerabilities with lower socio-economic status, i.e. poor women, is compromised in the context of land displacements based on their lower control over circumstances, higher fear and stress levels. Women in particular face higher stress levels if they fear disruption of their homes and local contexts because many have greater reliance on social support of other women in the community.
We have charted the complex, evolving and rich terrain of solidarities, protests, and grassroots activism that is gradually shaping resistance against land displacements in Karachi. The emotional and material dislocations that ensue from the loss of land, home and livelihoods do not always end in defeat; these moments also generate various forms of resistance and contestations. We place this complex process of resistance in shifting atmospheres of hope, invigoration and expectation that can quickly dissolve into despair, distress and waiting. These shifts epitomize the extensive labors of ordinary women and men who come together in given moments, to forge connections in their common struggles to achieve the same goal. The contestations and conflicts over displacement demonstrate how the right to land as a right to citizenship, remains differentiated and unacknowledged by the Pakistani state. With future displacements anticipated in the context of new urban planning and infrastructure development interventions on the horizon in Karachi, we offer recommendations for addressing the exclusions that arise from land displacement and resettlement.
Displacement and the Right to Stay Put in the Asian Metropolis is a video documentary about displacements in one of Asia's largest cities, Karachi.
KUL team members Arsam Saleem and Soha Macktoom were panelists at the Cities and Infrastructure: Rethinking Development Induced Displacement Conference 2019 held at LUMS, Lahore