Land, Governance and Gendered Politics of Displacement in Urban Pakistan

Principal Investigator: Nausheen H Anwar; Co-Investigator: Gulnaz Anjum

Project Team: Adam Abdullah, Maheen Arif, Soha Macktoom, Fizza Qureshi, Kanza Rizvi, Arsam Saleem, Muhammed Toheed

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.


  • We observe how the process of development bound land is governed and acquired for infrastructure/urban renewal projects and how people are negotiating compensations for their homes and other properties in Karachi.
  • We understand the effects of land displacement as especially pernicious because displacement is not a one-time event; rather an ongoing process that remains entangled between hope, waiting and despair.
  • We explore how communities respond to their marginalization in decision-making processes and resist land displacements; how they organize and demand redress; how they are prone to psychological harm.
  • We investigate how ‘resistance’ is framed at the community level in terms of the gendered impacts of displacement.

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.

  • Disrupted Livelihoods, Vulnerabilities

    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.

  • Gender, Resistance, and its Discontents

    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.

  • Space
    1. Life after displacement is usually caught up in a state of 'permanent temporariness', with many people relegated to an endless period of waiting for state-provided compensation
    Figure 1: KUL team members in conversation with residents of a neighborhood located in District West, Karachi, shortly after state authorities demolished several houses in January 2019. 
Source: Karachi Urban Lab photo files, 2019.
  • Space
    2. Key historical moments since 1947 that have led to the reshaping of Karachi's socio-spatial geography, leaving millions of urban dwellers to be evicted, relocated, or left to fend for themselves.
  • Space
    3. Estimated demolitions across Karachi from 1997 to 2020 due to land acquisition for urban development and mega-infrastructure projects. 67,562 housing units demolished; estimated 600,000 people displaced. 21, 499 commercial structures demolished as part of small-scale anti-encroachment drives. Less than 33 percent of the forcibly displaced households have received any alternative form of resettlement site and/or cash compensation.
  • Space
    4. Approximately 1,047 household units were demolished from January to May 2019 including both concrete structures and jhuggis located in District West, East and Central, with irreversible consequences on people’s livelihoods.
    Demolished homes in Mujahid Colony, a neighborhood located along KCR Loop Line. Source: KUL Photo Files, 2019.
  • Space
    5.Discussions about the right to work are hardly ever associated with space, as in the case of the 2018 demolitions of informal markets in the city's center, a process that led to the evisceration of nearly 200,000 jobs
    Over 1,700 shops Demolished in Empress Market. Source: Urban Resource Centre (URC), November 2018
  • Space
    6. The production and reproduction of the label 'encroachment' or ‘encroacher’ in media discourses and in the rhetoric used by politicians and judges, has silenced the stories of marginalized , working class poor, and income poor residents of the city.
    Kids playing on a mobile trampoline. Source: KUL Photo Files, 2019.
  • Space
    7. The data collection for the research project was based on several different methods: 670 semi-structured questionnaire-based household surveys; over 30 in-depth interviews with residents, activists, state officials; focus group discussions; participant observation; GIS mapping and digitization of data; detailed literature analysis; archival research; media discourse analysis; community workshops (wellbeing and legal); tracking court case hearings.
    Soha Macktoom’s sketches show the railway line adjacent land as a social space in the KCR informal settlements. Source: KUL Photo Files, 2018.
  • Space
    8. When the thing that ensures we are veiled [safe] is not there, how will we be veiled? How will we guard our purdah? Obviously, we will take to the streets, and we will not care whether we have our dupattas on or not. When someone’s shelter is taken from them, they don’t care about anything. A house is constructed with so much difficulty. (Female, 45 yrs, December 2019).
  • Space
    9. The fact that no one even bothered to acknowledge what happened to us, is a bigger tragedy than the disaster itself” (Male, 40yrs, December, 2018).
    A resident shows the extent of destruction in his neighborhood after state authorities demolished homes in May, 2019.
Source: KUL Photo Files, 2019
  • Space
    10. "Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers built this country together with Quaid-e-Azam. They are the reason this country was made and is capable of functioning. Now they’re calling their children encroachers? We have a right over this land, over this country." (Male, 30yrs, November 2018)
  • Space
    11. “The entire house is run by the woman, but when it comes to protesting outside, or when it comes to speaking in public, they don't let us come forward.” (Female, 70 yrs, December 2019)

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

KUL team members presented four papers on the panel titled ‘Politics of Displacement and Resettlement in Urban Pakistan’ at the 7th Annual Karachi Conference 2019.