Protests in Search of a Movement

Sep 2014

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11-Poisonous if Inhaled

We are living in an “urban century” according to the United Nations. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population, or around 5 billion people, are expected to live in cities.1 The largest increase over the next two decades is forecasted for so-called developing countries, especially in Asia. According to the conventional narrative of linear urbanization, Pakistan is 38 percent urbanized today; the urban population will have outnumbered the rural population between 2025-2030, probably sooner than later. The country will have 335 million inhabitants in 2050. Such prognoses, however, would appear less impressive (and alarming) if it was conceded that they hide easily contestable notions of what is meant by ‘urban’, ‘city’ and ‘urbanization.’ The predominant view on ‘the urban’ and cities is also largely economically biased.

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[schedule=’2014-10-01′ at=”00:01″]For the last two years, I have been researching urbanization politics in Pakistan, particularly in and around katchi abadis—declared or non-declared irregular settlements, mostly on government land.2 I didn’t begin with the urbanization question; I ended up there. My initial question was about social movements. Specifically, I wanted to know why movements do not evolve in many places most of the time—despite grievances being everywhere. Social movement literature, more often than not, focuses on successful mobilizations and subsequent lifecycles of the movement. The underlying conditions for why movements don’t happen has largely remained neglected in movement studies and contentious politics theorizing.

The moment I chose katchi-abadis in Lahore in Karachi as my field sites however, I was immediately caught up in the question of urbanization. Contrary to what I expected, the most contentious and enduring grievances in urban low income areas in Lahore and Karachi were not about the provision of services (e.g. water supply, electricity or gas); arrangements were usually made for this, somehow. Instead, housing and tenure security or access and usage rights — not even full property rights — turned out to be the object of local dwellers’ (albeit often quiet) struggles. That meant that in order to understand how movements do and don’t happen, I needed to get a handle on how contests over urbanization unfold.

Today, there is hardly any disagreement about Pakistan being urban to a huge extent.3 Mohammad A. Qadeer has claimed as early as 1999 that the majority of Pakistan is “spatially and technologically urbanized.”4 Urbanization can be viewed as a form of struggle and bargaining among different sorts of people during processes of place-making, that is, building or making residence and shelter. It has to be seen as a non-linear process that is a function of the underlying differentiated power relations at play. This may appear banal at first brush, but there’s a significant literature that argues for a far more simplistic view of urbanization.

A global city?

Common understandings of urbanization focus either on describing the proportion of urban to rural dwellers, or on the process of numerical or physical (i.e. spatial) growth of ‘the urban’ over time, or on the growth in proportion of a population living in urban areas. The dominant (neoliberal) vision portrays cities as engines of growth and provides such prominent narratives as that of ‘global cities.’ In this reading, cities form nodes and constitute agents in international policy networks; they are sites of financial capital concentration in global economic flows. The underlying assumption is that, as the 2012 Global Cities Index document says,  “the world today is more about cities than countries”; urban vectors will dominate in the future, and state-to-state politics are something of the past, even when it comes to mitigating effects of regional and global crises, be they financial, democratic or environmental of nature.


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Other literature has overestimated the agency of slum dwellers and squatters. For instance, the journalist Doug Saunders has popularized the idea of “arrival cities.” With this term, he describes clusters of “ex-villagers” on the cities’ peripheries as urban migrants who struggle in particular neighborhoods or localities to establish a new life and embed themselves socially and economically. Saunders makes an effort to demonstrate that all major social upheavals of the last two centuries have been started by arrival city dwellers, for example the First World War, the Russian Revolution and — more recently — the Arab Spring. Successful arrival cities create prosperous middle classes; failed arrival cities create poverty, social problems, and possibly violence. This view of social mobility — i.e. that it is what the inhabitants of arrival cities make of it — tends to naturalize poverty as an outcome of unsuccessful upward mobility; social immobility, thus, appears exclusively self-inflicted and independent of other structural forces. At bottom, all three narratives are economically framed and reduce humans to numbers or see agency only aggregated in terms of economic effects.  My research showed something different.

As I delved deeper into questions of movements and mobilization in the katchi abadis around housing and shelter—key issues in urbanization—my research began to trace what the idea of an “urban century” and urbanized or urbanizing society actually means on the ground, that is, how it translates into, or how it is informed by, realities observed in selected irregular low-income areas of the two largest Pakistani cities.

Urbanization is never neither necessarily transformative nor linear. In Pakistan, in fact, it resembles a process of co-production, mainly with the state and its representatives, but also with other actors including real estate dealers, the media and NGOs. This co-production is characterized by organized extra-legal activities and, significantly, the absence of collective action among members of the poorest strata within katchi abadis, that is, among residents of irregular low-income settlements. Particularly the last point—which then substantially differentiates (the working) class as homogeneous entity—is derived from my empirical research in the katchi abadis of Lahore and Karachi.

And, that, has effects for how movements do — and don’t — happen.

Mobilizing alliances

Before going further, it is necessary to draw a distinction between two types of mobilization: 1) that which is short-term (ad hoc) and directed primarily towards protesting at one or a few events before tailing off, and 2) that which is more substantially organized and aims at social change. The first form of mobilization can stage short-term eruptions of discontent, but lacks a transformational strategy. The current protests at katchi abadis in Islamabad fall into this category, and it remains to be seen whether activists there will be able to transform those protests into a broad-based transformational movement. This latter type of mobilization—broad-based organization that aims at social change—is what I am concerned with here. Such a mobilization requires a vision and a strategy that would likely result in a broad-based social movement aimed at a considerable redistribution of resources and power within society. And, that kind of broad-based, visionary mobilization has been largely missing in Pakistan.


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Inspired by scholar Asef Bayat’s distinction of quiet vs. audible mobilization, I began my research by trying to identify non-institutionalized everyday practices that, in their aggregate, would potentially qualify as a quiet encroachment of the ordinary on the lives and resources (including property) of the better off. I also wanted to understand the processes through which this would be happening. The main research interest thus revolved around processes of local, social self-organization in low-income settlements, and less so on outcomes. To get at these issues, I mainly conducted qualitative interviews in different types of katchi abadis. Following those interviews, I narrowed my work to a few of the sites, which I then revisited over a longer period of time for more interview work. I also spent time following up with local support organizations including NGOs, local welfare societies, government authorities, media and court reports, and finally, other researchers.

Photo credit: Asadullah Tahir | Bombay Doors

Related: In the Time of Riots | Ward Berenschot  (Photo credit: Asadullah Tahir)

This is what I found. Katchi abadis appear to be an example of urbanization understood as a spatial and numerical densification and expansion of the city through the establishment of new, evolving colonies—a process which I found really rare, but, once identified, fascinating to follow up with over a longer period of time. The establishment of new colonies could be observed happening through increasing density on the fringes of urban core areas. It is worth noting that the settlers were not rural migrants, but hailed mainly from other places inside Lahore or Karachi where they were paying rents they could hardly afford. They aspired to have their own house and save rent payments for other necessary expenditures. Given that the majority of the urban population lacks the money to buy land on the regular real estate markets, occupying state land — either of some government department or the Karachi Port Trust, for example — constitutes about the only way to potentially obtain a long-term residence that can be regularized through various bureaucratic procedures over time. But, I found that regularizing one’s residence doesn’t necessarily have to lead to robust ownership rights.5 Most dwellers stopped short of getting the ownership documents because of the involved hassles (including the payment of extra-legal fees) with respective government departments. In any case, according to statutory law, declared katchi abadis cannot be evicted.

The second type I researched were well-established katchi abadis that were contested because either federal institutions maintained or reiterated their claims to the land, or some other corporate actor claimed ownership rights, as in cases of Caritas, Defense Housing Authority (DHA), and the Lahore Development Authority (LDA). In the LDA case, the ownership claim was supported by the Land Acquisition Act. In these contested cases, residents of established colonies sought legal and extra-legal alliances with government representatives, but also mobilized so-called “civil society” organizations and media outlets. Together with these actors, residents staged protests in front of press clubs and elsewhere to defend their tenure and residences—with mixed success and without final result.

The third category of urbanization cases is the administrative incorporation of rural areas into the city. I followed up on one of the cases of dispossession that involved the incorporation of village territory into a development scheme in Lahore, in particular, the LDA Avenue 1 scheme based on the Land Acquisition Act. This case also involved a respective agreement between the LDA and the villagers for compensation. Evidence suggests that the local villagers’ strong efforts at mobilization of media and local NGOs in support of the villagers’ resistance was aimed at substantiating their claim for a higher price for the land from the LDA than what had been initially agreed upon. The same motive was also present in the cases where Sindhi goths were incorporated into Karachi’s municipal area, albeit on the part of land developers who joined company with goth-elders. For the elders, the choice was either getting evicted from the land but securing a share by allying with land developers, or getting evicted and losing out.6 So, the developers and the elders worked together and co-produced processes with a certain degree of extra-legality.

Mediating an urban movement

In each of these cases, the mobilizations were restricted to specific outcomes rather than broader structural change. The distinction between the two forms of mobilization, then, helps us understand why there is no comparable rights-for-shelter or housing movement in urban Pakistan as in Brazil or India, for example.

Secondly, a focus on mobilization processes enabled me to trace the cleavages within groups that are often clubbed together in binary models: the dispossessed or victims on the one hand versus possessors or wealthy capital-owners on the other. The reality is much more complex and characterized by flexible relationships which determine access to power resources and, subsequently, access to housing. In a long-term study of one evolving colony which has been revisited for two subsequent years now, the internal organizational fragmentation of the settlers and the alliances they (in)voluntarily entered over the course of the two years in order to realize their aspiration of obtaining a residence, provides deep insights.7 Particularly, intra-group competition over access and sustaining access to a plot of land indicates that personal interests and networks inhibit collective action and the genesis of a united force that could more forcefully and effectively represent local katchi abadi dwellers’ interests in the longer term.


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What these findings then suggest are two things in the main, the first having to do with urbanization, the second with mobilization. The case of the katchi abadis suggests a dramatic gap between the (stereotyped) image of urbanization as uncontrolled growth of the cities due to rural-urban migration that taxes the authorities and endangers social order and the lived realities of struggling to survive through specific protests and studied alliances between the katchi abadi dwellers and other activists.

Secondly, these findings highlight the crucial role of mediators and facilitators who could formulate a common goal, motivate joint-interest representation and provide a vision. Put simply, ordinary katchi abadi dwellers — despite existing grievances that most of them share — do not have the resources to institutionalize their interests. To date, they have not been able to go beyond ad hoc, sporadic protests towards a long-term mobilization process based on joint-interest and with an aim towards radical, structural change. Rather, the dwellers have largely opted for networked relations and hazy, ambiguously legal conditions that in turn, restrict their access to other rights and services from the state. It is only when they are able to establish that second form of mobilization that one could expect a fundamental redistribution of power resources in society. [/schedule]

Katja Mielke is a political sociologist working at Bonn University’s Center for Development Research (ZEF) in Germany.


[schedule=’2014-10-01′ at=”00:01″] FOOTNOTES  [/schedule]

  1. Where a document is not publicly available, TQ has made every effort to provide the full citation (simply roll your mouse over the hyperlink) along with the link taking the reader to the relevant database, article reference or book. []
  2. It is beyond the scope of this essay to dwell on the host of meanings of the term katchi abadi. The author gives an overview in Mielke 2014 (forthcoming). []
  3. Moreover, it is acknowledged that urbanization is not a uniform process. At least three types of processes can be distinguished, as a result of which putative urbanization is evident. ‘Putative’ here refers to the notion of urbanization without urbanism, a distinction pioneered by the sociologist Louis Wirth in his 1938 article “Urbanism as a Way of Life.” Urbanization, means the mere spatial and/or numerical expansion of an urban area and of inhabitants within administratively declared urban areas or municipalities, or even a technological urbanization. Urbanism, however, conceptualizes a way of life, not merely the fact of people living in a city. It is how they live in the city, and it is linked to broader conceptions of the good society and to questions of social integration. Urbanism — perhaps, better rendered in English as “urbanity” — refers therefore, to the condition of living in the city. []
  4. In a lecture at LUMS on 5 April 2013 Qadeer repeated this idea talking about the ‘urbanization of everybody and everything’ (in a sociological sense). However, the assumption, that even people who have not moved to the big cities or whose dwellings have been incorporated into municipalities have adopted an urban lifestyle (‘urbanism’) can be scrutinized, depending on what the term ‘urbanism’ is meant to signify. Are changes in consumption patterns, occupational structures and the use of services—all of these likely resulting in higher mobility—enough, or to what extent do diversity/heterogeneity, transformed family structures and institutional development also qualify as key attributes of urbanity, and their lack as absence of urbanity, respectively? []
  5. This was found from analyzing another set of case studies where the katchi abadi regularization process had set in after a residential household survey and subsequent notification of the surveyed residences as katchi abadi with a certain name. []
  6. Perween Rehman used to narrate the story of the yellow vs. the black snake the goth elders were confronted with (personal conversation); the anecdote can also be found in her paper “Goths become abadis – Karachi”, final draft February 2, 2012. []
  7. Due to limits of space, but also political sensitivity the example cannot by any means given in more detail. It is planned to write a separate article on it while carefully ensuring anonymity for the location, its residents, involved government departments and other stakeholders (e.g. aspirants for land, party workers, and religious entrepreneurs to only name the most significant ones. []

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5 Responses to Protests in Search of a Movement

  1. […] insights based on her ethnographic and interview work with the Hazara sit-ins, and Katja Mielke presents her long study of katchi abadi protests. Nadia Hasan researches another kind of movement: the […]

  2. TQ Chāt | # 22 | Tanqeed on Oct 2014 at 6:41 AM

    […] Urbanization, katchi abadis and the need for the redistribution of power in society. […]

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