LDA’s forced eviction of Model Town slum-dwellers is shocking, but not surprising

No one with a shred of shame can imagine such a thing happening in any democracy; but this is how the Lahore Development Authority works

For the dwellers at Sector M, Model Town Extension, there have been many a celebration of births, or mourning over deaths. For the last thirty years, they have seen the seasons change, the rains bringing them renewed joy, and sometimes misery. They shared smiles, and embraced tears. For thirty years, they have felt they were home. A home where there was a sense of belonging, comfort and most importantly, hope. It had been more than thirty long years that taught them life; that they had memories too of being the nomads; and that they had been reminded time and again of their class. That they are the lesser humans, that they are dirty, and that they should know they have no place here. Being a slum-dweller is perhaps the hardest thing we can ever fathom, but to a slum-dweller, he finds another reason to smile back with resilience.

And then one day, they realize what they started considering their home was no longer their home. Soon their little heaven turned into another hell. What they grew up on has now turned into ashes.

An eye-witness and a social worker in this slum narrated the incident.

“They came with axes and canisters of kerosene oil. They took off the cover from the toilet on the corner and disrespected the woman inside. On resistance she was slapped and humiliated before her family members. Then they systematically started cutting the holding ropes of the jhuggies (tents) and beating men, woman and children.

Raano, who was sitting in her hut with her two daughters, was their victim too. She was slapped and she fell down, then she was kicked in the chest and back several times.

Later on they also tried to burn down our tent school and toilet out there but failed due to resistance shown by the community members. It was very heartening to see that they saved the school and the portable toilet even though their huts and belongings were burnt down by the LDA personnel.

Now most members of the community are sitting in open, looking up for food, blanket and support from us.”

What was most striking was when the LDA personnel rushed towards a makeshift school set up by their helpers and friends, the dwellers stood tall, circled around school and resisted any brutality aimed at the place they worshipped most, because for them it carried the torch of knowledge, a sanctity of God for the teachers, the knowledge-sharers and of the hope one sees in a child’s curious eyes. They had just repaired the tent in the morning that got demolished in the rains. The authorities could not damage it, even as their world turned upside town.

Lahore Development Authority is notorious for forced evictions through use of violence in order  to appease their contractors and sometimes even to appease the land grabbers. Apparently, the land where these slum dwellers were living belonged to the Engineering Council, and LDA was tasked to evict the dwellers from this unused land. They had been taking rounds of the settlement for the past two weeks, and kept returning with threats, but these dwellers weren’t even given a fair amount of time to vacate the place as per the law. Instead, they were brutalized in the staunchest way. They feel helpless, because the development authority is only equipped with forced removals, but not with facilitating relocations without disgracing them.

No one with a shred of shame can imagine such a thing happening in any democracy; but this is how the LDA works. Their tactics remain hidden and unobvious, and our society is itself to be blamed for it, because mainly no one really considers slum-dwellers as humans with equal dignity. In fact, the violence against them easily gets justified, because they were “encroaching” on somebody else’s property, because they were involved in vocations like “begging”, or because of the stereotypes created by the settled, respectable communities against them. What’s worse is that our system does not provide them with an option to lodge a complaint against the criminal offence they faced, because they are threatened and intimidated with further violence if they dared to do so. And even if they chose to do so, their complaints would hold no legal value, as most of the slum-dwellers remain without proper identification documents, thus technically meaning they are the “invisible people”. This makes it more convenient for people to not acknowledge their existence and stay away from their miseries—officially.

If one is to see the gross injustice around, we should not just limit it to what happened at M-Sector.  How the authorities have been behaving with the gypsies is shocking, though not surprising. To know the heart of the problem, one needs to come out of their bubble, and see how distribution of land is taking place. Where there are hectors of lands allotted to ex-generals, bureaucrats, and landlords, millions are being denied any right to residence and basic facilities, especially for a community as this that has lived in the land for more than three decades.

It never is easy to question your conscience when you can’t be a part of them. The first step to do so is to know the gypsies is to know them as humans, not as trash of the society we live in. Perhaps, an acknowledgement can pave the way towards their integration here.

The writer is a freelance columnist.  Follow her on Twitter