Encroachments – a national malaise

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Everywhere one looks nationally there are encroachments large and small. They narrow further already narrow or congested lanes and roads, they force pedestrians into roadways designed and used for vehicular traffic, they cause ongoing disruption and in some cases have been legitimised by provincial and local authorities, becoming revenue earners for hard-pressed tax gatherers.

From time to time there have been anti-encroachment drives. They invariably fail and the encroachers are back within days or weeks. There is a national mindset of entitlement when it comes to encroachments, as if by some quirk of entropy they are beyond and above the law. That may be changing.

There have been headlines for weeks about the anti-encroachment drive in Karachi and particularly around Empress Market, now something of a rubble-strewn desert. In the last week the Sindh Building Control Authority has issued a notice to all schools and coaching centres within its purview that they must close their business by 31 December 2018.

This is going to affect hundreds of establishments and the education of thousands of children to say nothing of the loss of livelihood for teachers and ancillary staff. The same is true for those swept aside around Empress Market. The small stall holders and retailers had been there for decades, they were something of a tourist attraction and a ready source of small comestibles and household goods. It is impossible to calculate the damage done to the lives of individuals, and for many they will never recover.

Karachi is not the only city to feel the smart of the anti-encroachers. Islamabad has seen some of its up-market eateries having to relocate but as yet there is no order in respect of educational entities – some of which are the product of past government activity. Other towns and cities are also in the throes of flattening encroachments.

Whilst we do not challenge the legality of what the anti-encroachment drives are seeking to achieve because an illegal encroachment is an illegal encroachment – we do challenge the chronic planning deficit and the lack of foresight that accompanies these actions. In many cases provincial and local authorities were complicit by allowing the encroachments to go ahead in the first place, failing to implement the legislation designed to prevent them and that has gone on for decades.

There is no indication that those who turned a blind eye or stretched out a hand in anticipation of a bribe being paid are being pursued with the same diligence. Indeed it is entirely possible that some of those now so determinedly tearing down entire neighbourhoods were the very people that allowed them to come into being in the first place. All they are doing today is responding to a change in the political weather.

There can be no half-measures. Either encroachments are ‘allowed’ or they are not. The current climate politically is veering towards austerity (though not in all things) and an anti-encroachment drive has some but not universal public support. Too many are losing their primary incomes for that to happen, and those affected have little by way of political leverage.

Taking the long view – if the anti-encroachment drive(s) are sustained and ring-fenced against future encroachment then we would expect to see development plans stretching at least a decade hence for livelihood replacement, and towns and cities making available land on which those affected may set up business. There is no easy or painless way to do this and the national mindset is not going to change overnight. An encroachment-free Pakistan? At best a definite maybe.