The geographical targets of floods are changing in Pakistan and so are the discourses on the causes of floods. As floods move direction from rural-only to urban-included territories, the population affected is no longer the working class alone, the middle and upper classes are also to face the music. That is resulting in a change of narratives on floods, highlighting again which voices echo loud and clear in the policy chambers and which get buried deep or remain unheard.
So long as floods disturbed the rural life and ruined the kucha houses of the poor only, they were ‘natural’ disasters that one can do nothing to prevent except for seeking God’s forgiveness since, the discourses argued, these disasters come about as a result of our sins. A narrative of helplessness used to form the dominant discourse.
The latest policy position is no different than previous ones in that it continues to be exclusionary, prioritizing the rights and demands of one class of citizens over the others
However, urban floods of recent times, especially last year’s floods in Karachi and this year’s in Islamabad have changed the script. Now that the floods have increased the risk for middle and upper classes in the urban centers of the country, they are no longer considered a ‘natural’ occurrence. People affected by these urban floods are not helpless victims of a natural disaster, they are citizens of Pakistan. Something can be and ought to be done to prevent such happenings; better planning and implementation from the authorities is needed. Such are the slogans on most television channels, print news outlets and social media pages.
While one may be tempted to praise the shift in discourses by saying ‘better late than never,’ some additional details prevent reaching such conclusions. The latest policy position is no different than previous ones in that it continues to be exclusionary, prioritizing the rights and demands of one class of citizens over the others. Population in the flood risked/affected regions of Karachi and Islamabad is being divided into two types: population that is the cause of floods and population that is affected by the floods. If we recall the viral videos that emerged from the recent floods in E-11 sector of Islamabad, we see Corollas worth millions being swept away by the flood; what we do not see is the state of the kucha or semi-pucca houses of the working class who live in the same sector. That should allow us to understand that it is the interest of Corolla owners that the recent shift in discourses on floods aims to protect against the interests of poor working class living in the Katchi Abadis (informal urban settlements).
Katchi Abadi residents are not seen amongst the victims of the floods but rather those who cause the floods to get out of hand. It is argued that they encroach the government owned land, build illegal and unsafe houses on nullahs which results in reduced drainage capacity especially during the monsoon season, resulting in urban flooding. With such a policy narrative, the solution seems quite clear: nullahs need to be cleaned and the katchi abadi residents that are contributing to the blockage of nullahs must face eviction for the greater public good.
It might be more appropriate to say that the katchi abadi residents must face eviction for the greater public’s (or superior public’s) good. The word encroachment is interesting because the governments, the policy makers and the ‘woke’ voices on the media implicitly divide encroachment into two types: the legal encroachment of the haves of this country and the illegal encroachment of the have-nots. From the development of the capital city of Islamabad to the development of the DHAs and the Bahrias of this country, every brick cements and deepens the widely accepted discourse that accepts the encroachments of affluents as legal and the basic human right of the working classes to a shelter as illegal. If we accept such policy narratives, we are giving acceptance to a notion that it is okay for the rich people to encroach, and in fact when they do it, it is not encroachment at all.
In conclusion, when people of the upper classes disturb the environmental ecology and risk the country to become the seventh most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, we call it ‘development’, but when the working classes try to claim their right to shelter, we call it encroachment and talk the big-talk of evictions? If anything, it is not the Katchi abadi residents who should face eviction, it should be the residents of the Bahrias, the DHAs, and other such upper-class residential brands of this country facing eviction to ensure the restoration of the environmental ecology of the country.
The author is a researcher at Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA). Email: email@example.com