- Hafsah Siddiqui
The Transformational Role of Knowledge in the Fight Against Forced Evictions
“…In everyday life, a person wishes that they also can be housed in a nice place. A clean place. Like we’re illegal here. We’re in this sector [of the city], so obviously the government should give it to us. But they’re not giving it.”
These were the words of Nasreen when I asked about her housing situation. Nasreen is a resident of the H-9 katchi abadi (informal settlement) — also known as Rimsha Colony — in Islamabad, Pakistan. The H-9 abadi has no electricity, water, or gas. Large families live in small brick houses. Young children play outside in the dust, garbage getting caught on their bare feet. In 2018, 40% of the country’s urban population lived in such settlements.
Ten months on from my interview with Nasreen in April 2021, the H-9 abadi is now facing the threat of being demolished to construct a large arterial avenue through the area. This danger speaks to a larger problem of forced evictions — broadly defined as the involuntary removal of people from their homes or land — in cities of the Global South. Increasingly, informal settlements are being wiped out by local governments to make room for more profitable endeavours. Islamabad is no different: current urban policy is dictated by the goal to modernise the city through high-profile infrastructure projects, exclusive gated communities, and spaces of consumption intended to serve only a select echelon of urban residents.
For informal settlement dwellers, being forcibly evicted is a violent experience, and one that violates the human right to adequate housing. Demolishing communities of thousands of people also severs access to education, health, basic services, and a sense of community. Out of more than 40 abadis that exist in Islamabad today, only ten have been officially recognised by the local government. This means that the remaining abadis are considered illegal encroachments on public or privately-owned land and are at risk of being forcibly evicted.
What are the options to prevent forced evictions of informal settlements like the one where Nasreen lives? In-situ slum upgrading is one strategy that involves granting settlements all the rights and services that an ordinary neighbourhood would have, without expelling residents from the area. Another alternative would be to relocate affectees to a suitable location and compensate them for any losses faced. A more long-term solution would involve creating a pathway for affordable housing to ensure security of tenure for the most marginalised residents of the city.
Despite having worked across the globe, these strategies — like any policy directive — are
largely operating at the macro societal scale. My research considers the micro-level, bottom-up resistance that abadi residents engage in when confronted with the threat of eviction. I examine the relationships that abadi residents build with political activists to get their claims heard at the governmental level. I question whether these relationships lead to a more robust sense of urban belonging, a more thorough understanding of rights, and greater levels of self-trust in approaching the state to make claims with regards to housing. The activist-resident alliances proved to be transformational because activists were able to demystify the language of the state for residents. This was done by holding regular meetings in the settlements where residents could ask questions and discuss their problems. Activists played a crucial role in strengthening residents’ capacity for self-representation and participation in community-building efforts. As Nasreen told me: “I learned a lot from them [activists]. If I want to do something, I can do it. If we want, we can have this abadi under our names. We can make our homes here. If a person has the strength to do some work and takes it forward, then God willing, it gets done... If I know that these are the laws, then I can speak about them. I have this much strength. From them [activists], I've found out that these are the laws... If I speak about this, they [the government] will definitely listen, because I'll know that this is my law. This is my right.”
What Nasreen’s experience tells us is that access to mediating knowledge (between state and citizen) lies at the forefront of effective campaigning against forced evictions. In Pakistan, where the literacy rate hovers around 58%, the passing down of knowledge by bridging agents such as political activists is invaluable in helping residents assert their rights with more conviction and confidence. Within a context of urban injustice, knowledge is a crucial asset to acquire. Current social, economic, and political barriers to education must be eroded to allow people like Nasreen a chance to claim their right to the city. Along with macro-level policy strategies, local governments should not only ensure that discussions around housing are more inclusive and open to all, but also that every urban resident is aware of their rights.
Hafsah Siddiqui  is a PhD Candidate in urban-political geography. Her work focuses on class, citizenship, and social movements in cities of the Global South.