While on one hand, anti-encroachment drives are under way across provinces, the government is working to establish alternative housing for the homeless. Revisiting his project from early November in which he established a shelter for the homeless in Lahore, Prime Minister Imran Khan is now looking to expand the work. He recently directed the government to establish makeshift housing by erecting tents across cities, starting with Lahore and eventually extending to Karachi and Peshawar. The program will also provide meals to the hungry. This is a welcome move but one that seems a bit ironic against the backdrop of country-wide anti-encroachment drives that have rendered hundreds of impoverished people without work, shelter, and wages due to mass evictions.
A figure of 20 million homeless people exists in Pakistan according to the development NGO, the PDP Foundation. That is roughly 10% of the population if we look at 2017 population figures for Pakistan. Cooler temperatures in the coming weeks necessitated the need for shelter throughout our winters, but few leaders were willing to take charge. The homeless were at the mercy of concerned citizens who would try to help them battle the winter by donating blankets and warm clothing and one would consider it a hoax that the government would directly help the poor. We laud the premier for spending government funds on this justified cause. PM Khan appears to be genuinely advocating for marginalized communities and his intentions seem to be in the right place, rather than his directives serving as mere publicity stunts to project a certain image. Nevertheless, we have a long way to go.
In a 2016 UN Development Program report, four out of 10 Pakistanis, or 80 million people, exist in multidimensional poverty meaning they do not only lack shelter, but also equitable access to education and health among other factors. This highlights the need to focus on services in other government areas and considering the regressions during the last few decades, the pace needs to be accelerated. Simultaneously, while temporary fixes make sense now, PM Khan needs to order permanent solutions such as low-income housing societies on government land for citizens who can prove they are below a certain income threshold. As a Muslim country we thrive on alms-giving, charity and donations, but there is a critical need to streamline the process of keeping track of the pool of such funds. This would allow for better distribution of funds in the way of proper background checks before funds are allocated.
With the newly pitched tents to serve as makeshift shelters for the homeless, it is unclear whether those forced out by anti-encroachment drives will be able to reap similar governmental benefit of an alternative place to set up shop. There is agreement that the manner in which anti-encroachment was handled is brutal. The compensation packages and resettlement societies need to come quickly but in the meantime, it would be reasonable to consider that shelter in the makeshift tents might need to be offered to the people the government has forcefully rendered homeless.