‘Demolition of my life’: Chronicling the horrors of forced evictions in Pakistan

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“My husband, Ghulam, used to put a stall with samosas outside Empress Market. Last time when an anti-encroachment drive took place, police seized his cart without any prior notice,” said Sakina Wali, a 43-year-old domestic worker in Karachi.
“My husband was abused and humiliated by the staff concerned, and we had to pay them a hefty amount of Rs20,000 to get our cart back,” she recalled.
Hundreds of kilometres away in Islamabad, Farmanullah, who is the sole breadwinner for a family of seven, was arrested for committing the offence of “encroachment” and imprisoned for three months, along with a fine of Rs500,000. His crime: selling kulfi outside the Faisal Mosque.
According to a report by US-based group Human Rights Watch, titled ‘Abusive Forced Evictions in Pakistan’, forced evictions of urban poor across the country is a “frequent and widespread” problem. The irony is that because the victims of these operations are mostly from the poor and marginalised strata of society, data reflecting the scale of the problem is largely absent.
Forced evictions are driven by multiple factors, including urbanisation and development projects where the government and private developers acquire land for infrastructure projects, often displacing poor communities without due process and human rights protection.
“‘Anti-encroachment’ drives are another justification used for eviction operations,” the group said, noting that large parts of the urban population live in informal settlements lacking formal ownership documents and this coupled with lack of affordable housing, corruption and inefficiencies make them particularly vulnerable to evictions.
Several other factors provide an enabling environment for evictions such as the rapid pace of urbanisation, housing developments for the affluent displacing poor communities, land grabs by powerful private actors and a legal system that fails to protect the poor, it added.
Colonial-era regulation
The framework of property rights in Pakistan is enshrined under the Constitution. Land ownership, transfer and acquisition are all governed by many federal, provincial and municipal laws and regulations.
Forced evictions in Pakistan rely on the Land Acquisition Act (LAA) — inherited by the British — which authorises public officials to evict people from land with minimal procedural safeguards for those displaced. When a government authority decides to acquire land, whether for public or private purposes, the law outlines the process for acquisition and compensation to affected persons.
“However, the law now permits Pakistani authorities to acquire land for other entities, including public-private partnerships and private companies,” the HRW report highlighted.
It stated that the LAA gives the government “almost exclusive authority to decide what falls within its scope and to displace people to achieve those aims”. Under the law, once the government decides that land is required for “public purposes”, the landowner has no legal recourse but to transfer ownership of the land.
“The LAA treats a title-based relationship with the land as the basis of eligibility and as a result does not cover displacement of ‘informal settlements’, areas recognised by the government that are entitled to some municipal services and protection against arbitrary evictions.
“The LAA also envisages cash payment as the only form of compensation and provides no provisions for relocation and resettlement support for displaced populations,” the report said, adding that the Act had been adapted and incorporated into other laws that regulate land acquisition for sector-specific development.
Over the years, the LAA’s inadequacies have been widely recognised, with the Supreme Court in a 2018 decision observing the law’s “shortcomings” with respect to compensation. “[It] remains a remnant of colonial times that should have been … amended to cater to our evolving socio-economic circumstances,” the apex court noted.
Anti-encroachment drives
Anti-encroachment operations are a frequently used “method of forced evictions of residential communities, small shops and markets in Pakistan”, the HRW report pointed out.
“In these operations, the authorities assert that evictions are necessary and justified under the law by removing structures that encroach on public lands,” it said.
It observed that Pakistan has various federal and provincial laws that define and, in certain cases, make encroachment a criminal offence. For instance, the municipal law in Islamabad defines encroachment as “illegal occupation of land or procuring its allotment in any unauthorised manner or by illegal means and includes the use of any land otherwise than in accordance with the terms of its lease, license or allotment”.
The HRW said it had documented numerous cases in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi where the manner of forced evictions and demolitions was “abusive, could not be justified as a proportionate measure and violated the rights of homeowners, families and occupants”.
“In almost all cases of anti-encroachment drives documented, the government failed to comply with international human rights standards on evictions, including providing those evicted with an alternative place to live.”
On November 7, 2021, a video of Zakia Bibi, a resident of Karachi’s Gujjar nullah, went viral on Facebook. The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation had just demolished her home in an anti-encroachment operation on orders of the top court.
“Why don’t they kill us [all at] once?” she said in the video, which was cited by the HRW. Zakia went on to speak about her husband, who had a heart attack after seeing his house reduced to rubble. She referred to the demolition of her abode as the “demolition of her life” and everything she and her husband had built over a lifetime.
Four days later, on November 11, Zakia died of a heart attack.
“This was not the first death or the last for that matter to happen because of the demolitions. There is an emerging health crisis in the affected communities, directly linked to demolitions. There are multiple heart patients among the affectees of this anti-poor campaign.
“What will become of them? The government is signing their death sentence with every new demolition,” the report quoted Khurram Ali, convenor of the Karachi Bachao Tehreek, as saying of Zakia’s death.
Karachi has seen several anti-encroachment drives in recent years. In 2018, it was the Empress Market where over 1,000 shops were demolished. In 2020, it was the Orangi and Gujjar nullahs, where the evictions and demolitions affected up to 12,000 homes housing 96,000 people, the HRW said.
A never-ending list of failures
Pakistan’s judicial system, as highlighted in the report, has failed to protect people from forced evictions.
“Evicted residents often try to seek redress in the courts, but generally find that they are unable to obtain a meaningful remedy. Even when a court decides in favour of residents, it is often too late: their homes and businesses have already been demolished.
“Evicted individuals and communities are only able to contest the adequacy of compensation,” it said. The HRW, however, added that the law does not compensate for the loss of livelihood of the evicted nor requires the government to resettle and rehabilitate the displaced people.
It found that the cash compensation, rarely adequate, is not in accordance with market rates.
Rahim Dad, a 58-year-old farmer with land near the banks of River Ravi, which his family has lived on and cultivated for three generations and which was earmarked for acquisition by the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project (Ruda) in October 2022, termed the compensation he received “a joke”.
“The price that the government puts on our lives and livelihoods is ridiculous. There is no mechanism to calculate the market rate. They take over our lands which is in acres and will build high-rise buildings that they will sell at a rate/price per yard,” he told the HRW.
Apart from the compensation, the evictees also revealed that most of them had not been adequately informed of or consulted for the planned eviction operations.
Moreover, the HRW highlighted that the government either gave no formal notice or issued an insufficient notice before the evictions.
Maria Yaqub, a 21-year-old college student, had been informed that homes in her area, near the Gujjar nullah in Karachi, were marked for demolition, but was not informed when.
One day in April 2021, she returned home to see bulldozers ready to go to work. She asked the officials present to wait so that she could go in and save the photograph of her late parents from inside the house. She was told to hurry. There was no time to gather her other belongings and books. While she was inside trying to take the photo off the wall, she heard the bulldozers turning on. The giant yellow mechanical claw hit a wall, causing it to collapse immediately.
“I heard screaming and shouting [from outside]. The photo frame slipped from my hands. I ran out and escaped with my life —nothing else,” the report quoted Maria as saying.
While international law does not prescribe a specific notice period before evictions, the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing recommends that there should be a notice period of at least 90 days before any involuntary resettlement.
Further, the HRW noted that rights groups have documented the use of threats, intimidation and unnecessary or excessive force by officials to enforce evictions for development projects. In some instances, the evictions took place in highly charged circumstances leading to clashes between residents and the police.
Under international standards, the government must ensure that all feasible alternatives are explored with the affected community before the evictions are carried out, the report pointed out.
Long-lasting impacts of evictions
International human rights standards ensure that evictions should not lead to homelessness or expose individuals to further human rights violations, according to the HRW report. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has said that “[w]here those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the government must take all appropriate measures … to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available”.
In many cases, the group reported that evictions resulted in homelessness, and adversely impacted access to health and children’s right to education.
The LAA lacks provisions for the rehabilitation and resettlement of evicted individuals, and cash payments are often inadequate and delayed, leading to temporary homelessness and severe financial hardships, the report noted.
In cities, evictions frequently force low-income residents to move to suburbs or villages where their skills may be unusable, resulting in a significant loss of income. For example, Kashif Rehan, an air conditioner repairman in Islamabad, saw his income plummet after being evicted and relocating to a village.
“In its current form, the [LAA] critically remains silent on the issue of rehabilitation and resettlement, offering no recourse to families who lose their land, are inadequately compensated, and are unable to replace their assets or source of livelihood through the market,” Fizzah Sajjad, an urban planning expert, told the HRW.
Razia Khatoon, the sole breadwinner for her family, ran a women’s clothing shop in Lahore’s Anarkali bazaar for nearly 20 years. In 2016, her house and shop were marked for demolition for the metro train project.
“We were given compensation that was the cost of the shop and the house. But the cost of the shop is not only the land and the debris: it is the clients, the customers,” she said. “If I set up a shop in another area as an outsider, it would take me 20 more years to get to the level of sales that I had before the demolition.”
Furthermore, victims of forced evictions, often poor and living in informal settlements, face additional barriers to healthcare.
Citing research by the Karachi Urban Lab in 2020, which focused on 13 informal settlements, the HRW report said that households of eight to nine people lived on plots as small as 20 square yards. About 40 per cent had a family member needing special medical or social care, with 70pc at high risk of contracting viral illnesses.
Zain Ali, an office clerk, was evicted in 2017 when his house in Lahore was demolished for an infrastructure project. His paralysed, 80-year-old father lost social support and access to healthcare.
“After we had to move to the outskirts of the city, I lost all connections with the doctors and pharmacists, the hospital was two kilometres away and I didn’t have the support of the community. My father passed away less than one year after we were displaced,” Ali told the HRW.
The UN special rapporteur on adequate housing stated that evicted individuals needing medical care, including those with disabilities, “should receive the medical care and attention they require to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay”, according to the group.
Special attention should be given to the health needs of women and children, ensuring ongoing treatments are not disrupted by eviction or relocation. Additionally, economic assistance for relocation should consider access to health and medical care.
Moreover, forced evictions severely impact access to education for displaced people. During the construction of Lahore’s Orange Line Metro Train, at least 42 educational institutions were partially or completely demolished.
Forced evictions often leave people temporarily homeless and needing to relocate far from their original homes. Children often drop out of school when parents lose jobs, with many never returning, especially in a country with high school dropout rates. Girls are particularly at risk of permanently leaving school due to factors like gender discrimination, child marriage, sexual harassment, and the insecurity of travelling longer distances.
“Forced eviction and displacement often has disastrous consequences for access to health and education. In Pakistan, particularly for the socio-economically vulnerable segment in urban contexts, the social and communal contacts developed in neighbourhoods are critical for accessing municipal service, getting employment, school admissions, and affordable health care,” said Dr Shehryar, a former civil servant working with displaced groups, told the HRW.
The report cited research by the Karachi-based Urban Resource Centre, which found that an anti-encroachment campaign after the 2020 monsoon rains had disrupted the education of over 30,000 students. This is particularly devastating in low-income areas with already poor enrolment rates. Poverty is a major barrier to education, with even low costs being prohibitive for many families.
Many Pakistani children are out of school due to work, with girls often kept home for housework and caregiving. Evictions exacerbate poverty, pushing more families to send children to work instead of school.
Muhammad Ansar is one such child. He was in grade nine when his education was disrupted after his family home was demolished in Lahore. They moved to Sheikhupura due to financial constraints. Without income, Muhammad and his family took up daily wage jobs, leading him to abandon school for work in a factory, he told the HRW.
The HRW noted that displacement increased travel distance to schools, especially impacting girls. A Karachi resident, who relocated to Lyari Basti, told KUL that her daughter couldn’t continue education beyond grade 10 due to the absence of nearby colleges and her safety concerns about travelling alone as a single girl.
Recommendations
In its report, the HRW recommended comprehensive reforms to LAA to align it with international human rights standards. This includes prohibiting all forced evictions and respecting human dignity.
It also recommended exploring all feasible alternatives to eviction, consulting with affected individuals, and providing adequate notice, legal remedies, and compensation for loss of property. The law should guarantee access to justice, legal aid, and resettlement rights. Importantly, legislation should protect against discrimination, particularly concerning indigenous peoples, and ensure transparent and participatory land acquisition processes, with the right to appeal disputes to an independent body.
The HRW urged the federal and provincial governments to prioritise community participation in all stages of development planning and ensure fair compensation for landholders and occupants. They must prevent homelessness and uphold displaced individuals’ rights to alternative housing, along with access to essential services and livelihood opportunities.
Additionally, officials responsible for excessive use of force or property destruction during evictions should be investigated and prosecuted accordingly.
The group stressed that municipal authorities should ensure evictions are authorised through a fair and transparent process. Officials should receive proper training to uphold international law enforcement standards.
It called on key international actors to provide capacity-building support to local organisations and civil society groups to monitor government compliance with human rights obligations.
Furthermore, the HRW urged governments and financial institutions lending to Pakistan to ensure their policies do not hinder housing rights protection. The group recommended that the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing should raise concerns with the Pakistan government and request a mission to investigate forced evictions.

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