AFTER Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan Housing Programme had received considerable publicity, I asked Sakina Bibi if she would apply for it. Sakina is a housemaid, and her family income amounts to Rs20,000 per month. She lives in a rented house (Rs8,000 a month) in a squatters’ settlement. Hers is a small family of four, and her economic status should qualify her for a house under the PTI’s ambitious scheme of building five million houses for the poor in five years. Above all, her lifelong dream has been to have a roof she owns above her head.
Sakina laughed at my question and asked me how she was expected to get the Rs600,000 needed for the down-payment to join the programme. That was a good question. Besides, she would not get her dream house right away. It could take time. Repayment of the remaining estimated loan of Rs2,400,000 would be spread over 20 years. Sakina Bibi’s predicament is real.
Newspaper reports tell us that there were serpentine queues of housing hopefuls waiting outside Nadras centres to file their applications. It appears we have a substantial number of ‘rich poor’ people in the country.
All previous attempts at providing housing for the poor have failed.
This seemed to be something of a paradox to me. I decided to consult Tasneem Siddiqui, a man of utmost integrity in Pakistan’s housing sector. As the former director general of Hyderabad Development Authority and subsequently of the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority, he could have, if he had wanted to, become this country’s first ‘Malik Riaz’ decades ago. Siddiqui chose not to, and used his understanding of psychology of the poor and of the developers and speculators to develop a model housing scheme for the indigent of Pakistan.
Siddiqui is sceptical of any housing project for the poor that involves private developers. According to him, there is a current backlog of eight million units with an annual incremental demand of 400,000 units. But this is juxtaposed with the fact that there is no shortage of housing for the rich and affluent middle classes, who comprise one third of the population. Their needs are addressed by the market in this age of neoliberalism. The state encourages the private sector in various ways to launch housing schemes that only higher-income groups can afford. Because of higher costs, only one per cent of low-income groups can access them. But there is another paradox that Siddiqui identifies — over 250,000 plots in Sindh and 50,000 flats in Karachi are lying unoccupied.
The need of low-income groups is met by the informal sector — the land mafia — operating in collusion with government functionaries and the police. They sell undeveloped state land at a price the poor can afford, since nothing is spent on infrastructure such as water, electricity and sewerage. As a result, 35pc of Pakistan’s urban population lives in appalling conditions in katchi abadis.
All previous attempts at providing housing for the poor failed because government planners tried to impose their own solutions on the people without understanding their needs. Their prices were invariably unaffordable, and there was so much red tape involved that the poor were excluded from the process that didn’t allow immediate occupancy either. There was no access to technical advice after possession, and social services such as healthcare, education and transportation were not available. As a result, public land allocated for the poor was purchased by speculators and kept unutilised till land prices rose and they could make lucrative profits.
Saibaan, set up by Siddiqui in 1992, is the only organisation currently working in the social housing sector in coordination with the government development authorities. It has already launched schemes in Hyderabad, Gharo and Lahore, with plans to launch in other cities as well.
In the project Khuda ki Basti 3 (located in Taisar Town, Karachi), 2,700 families — with a monthly income of less than Rs15,000 — have been provided 80 sqare yards plot at affordable prices. The sequence of development has been reversed from the traditional one the government has unsuccessfully followed. The government project involves the acquisition of land, creating the infrastructure, building houses and then getting people to occupy them. This process makes the end product unaffordable for the poor.
In Khuda ki Basti people improvise their own housing, move into it and then Saibaan develops the infrastructure incrementally. Owners also upgrade their houses whenever they manage to generate some savings. Since they work together and provide their own labour, the houses become affordable for them.
Speculators are not provided plots and absentee ownership is discouraged. Entitlements of those who do not start building their homes within six months are cancelled.
The state could help such housing schemes by earmarking accessible land at a low cost for the poor, prioritising building roads, and locating clinics and schools in the area.
But is anybody listening?