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Dream gone sour

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by Dr Asim Sajjad

MANY regions and peoples in Pakistan are suffering the wrath of what is now an annual flooding nightmare due to monsoon rains, including Mirpurkhas, Tharparkar, Badin, Chitral and Swat. But Karachi has garnered overwhelming attention, the trials and tribulations of residents within the jurisdiction of Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC) especially so.

In order, the misery of already invisible masses in rural peripheries is least newsworthy, slum dwellers and katchi abadi residents in crowded inner cities garner slightly more attention, while the once-in-a-blue-moon plight of affluent inhabitants in gated housing communities and other elite areas is breaking news.

This is at least in part because some DHA and CBC residents have responded to the flooding and suspension of basic amenities with protest. Many sub-plots have developed along the way, class privilege and racism rearing their ugly heads.

The authorities’ response has been telling: limited mitigation, and an FIR against protesters. This confirms that the state — or in this case, formally autonomous bodies with links to the militarised state apparatus — is not willing to tolerate the slightest hint of popular upheaval, even if the protagonists are relatively rich and powerful.

Will the elite be forced out of its myopic bubble?

In all likelihood, the hullabaloo will tide over soon, in part because affectees in this particular case have the financial means and political connections to both rehabilitate their homes and defuse tensions with the authorities.

But there is a much larger quandary, and time will tell whether it forces our otherwise self-serving elite to face up to an unsustainable model of ‘development’ that threatens to swallow all of us up.

Both for the established elite and the vast majority of Pakistanis who harbour a ‘middle-class aspiration’, membership of the gated housing community is a marker of cultural and economic status. Over the past two to three decades, thousands of such communities have sprung up across the country, displacing millions and destroying their livelihoods in agriculture, fishing, and petty trade.

For profiteers in the state apparatus and diaspora, plots are investments. It is well established, for instance, that DHAs have their genesis in concessionary land grants to serving and retired military personnel. The resale value of allotted plots under the guise of an incorporated autonomous body like DHA generates exponential profits.

If dreams of gated housing communities could continue being sold by suppressing the politically voiceless labour classes that are forcibly dispossessed, the elite and aspirants to middle-class status might be able to imagine limitless consumption. But the debacle in Karachi has shown that the conquest of nature upon which this ‘developmental’ model is founded has limits.

Combined with the damming of the Indus River and the drying up of deltas (among others), the reclamation of land on Karachi’s coastline to facilitate gated housing communities like DHA is not sustainable. In fact, it is irresponsible and dangerous.

As some fellow columnists have noted on these pages, Karachi’s dysfunctional decision-making structure implicates all major political parties and requires an overhaul. But the rot is not limited only to local politicos and the municipal authorities; it runs right through the development planning bureaucracy, the militarised state apparatus more generally, property developers, and a host of related industries. This domestic nexus appears to be hand in glove with foreign governments and multilateral donors who themselves champion a highly financialised, neoliberal development model that turns more and more people into atomistic consumers that idealise plots in the mythical gated housing community.

Addicted to handouts from foreign benefactors, Pakistan’s ruling class — the defence establishment most of all — will not wake up and smell the proverbial coffee until it is itself confronted with wretchedness that is the daily plight of working people in this country. What has transpired in recent days in DHA/CBC Karachi could in principle force the elite out of its myopic bubble and compel it to acknowledge that flooding and other symptoms of an unsustainable and anti-poor developmental paradigm are no longer rare events.

But I would not vest my hopes in such an eventuality. Not only do the rich and powerful care less for the majority of this country’s people, they do not have the foresight to devise a development model that pulls us back from the precipice of ecological meltdown. If there is hope, it must be in the mass of young people who are sold possessive dreams of ‘development’ and warned to stay away from any ideas of collective betterment that do not conform to official ideology. The ‘middle-class aspiration’ is a hoax, a dream that inevitably goes sour. Let us hope this realisation does not come too late. This essay was first published in Dawn.

Dr Asim Sajjad teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is an author and member of the AWP Federal Committee.

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