One of the most fundamental duties of the state in any civilised society is the protection and enforcement of property rights. So an “anti-encroachment” drive by the city government of Karachi would fall under the ambit of the government simply living up to its duty to enforce the law. And while the state has the right to use force, if necessary, it is nevertheless unfortunate when such a use of force results in the loss of life as in the case of the two young men who were shot dead during an armed confrontation with the police in the Baldia Town area of Karachi on Thursday.
The police claim that the two men were employed by the “land mafia” and had come to resist the Karachi revenue department’s efforts to clear government land that had been encroached upon. Nobody seems to dispute that the land was encroached upon though some people, including the Awami National Party, apparently feel that the government should not have used force in trying to clear the area. While we find violence deplorable, we are sympathetic to the government’s efforts to take possession of the land that it owns.
With that said, however, the problem of urban encroachment needs to be placed in the broader context of an extreme shortage of affordable housing in many of the largest cities across Pakistan. Simply put, buying a house or even a small apartment is out of the reach of most lower income households and even quite a few middle income households as well. Something clearly needs to be done in order to prevent this crisis from spinning out of control. It is somewhat tempting to urge the government to enact policies and make provisions for cheaper urban housing, yet we would caution against such policies. Government-sponsored urban housing projects, even in the most developed of economies, have a tendency to descend very quickly into stagnant neighbourhoods where crime runs rampant. We are also hesitant to support government policies that would cause an unnatural increase in access to credit for home-buyers — it is precisely that sort of government zeal that landed the United States into the economic mess it currently finds itself in. For now, a continuation of the effort to enforce property rights will have to do.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2010.
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