Sprawling Lahore’s Hidden Villages: Charrar pind and urban inequality

Sprawling Lahore’s Hidden Villages: Charrar pind and urban inequality


Lahore, Pakistan’s second most populous city, has seen unprecedented rates of spatial and population growth over the past few decades. Between 1998 and 2017, the city’s population has almost doubled to 11.1 million in 2017, compared to 6.3 million in 1998 (census). This massive growth has been accompanied by infrastructural developments, surge in land prices and an explosion of private/quasi-private housing societies. Most of this landscape transformation has been driven by, and had worked for the benefit of middle-income to elite groups, with those residing in working-class neighbourhoods virtually left ‘off the grid’.

Lahore, 1998 Lahore, 2020 Charrar Pind (village) is one such neighbourhood. Charrar, spread over 80 acres, lies in the middle of the military-led Defence Housing Authority’s (DHA) residential development. The neighbourhood now has 8  different entrances, with each entrance guarded by a male officer. These security check-posts, established by DHA, not only seek to surveil Charrar residents, but to create a physical boundary between the two neighbourhoods. Yet the two seep into one another, at one instance too many. As per accounts shared by Charrar residents, security check posts have been in place for roughly 2 decades, although movement was severely restricted during the lock-down period of COVID-19.
Check-post at the Ghazi Road entrance to Charrar
Despite proximity, the contrast between the two neighbourhoods is stark; DHA with its bungalows, smooth tarmac roads, bustling commercial centres and various amenities houses the upper-middle class and elite. Charrar, on the contrary, with its open drainage, unlevelled roads, uncollected trash, and low-hanging bare electricity wires is home to working class populations. The sights and smells drastically change as one steps into Charrar from DHA, and vice versa.
DHA's street right before entering Charrar
DHA’s street right before entering Charrar
The other end of the same street marking the entry into Charrar
Inside the village: a glimpse of the infrastructure
Even though the Cantonment Board is the governing municipal body of both Charrar and DHA, service provision in both locales is extremely varied. In Charrar, no proper sewerage networks are in place, and the public water supply line is contaminated and irregular. Water tests show severe microbial contamination in the public supply, casting it unfit for consumption. Some users have installed private boring motors to cope with the situation, which has further lowered the sinking ground water table. The last time any infrastructural repair took place in the area was in the years 2010-2012, ahead of general elections.
Residents filling up drinking water (accessed through boring motors)
Residents filling up drinking water (accessed through boring motors)
Upon cursory observation, it may seem that Charrar is a residual faction of DHA, perhaps even a sort of slum, but in reality, its existence precedes that of its privileged neighbour. Charrar has thrived as a settlement since long before the subcontinent’s partition in 1947 (with residents speaking of its 400-year old history), whereas DHA, given statutory approval in 2002, came into being as the Lahore Cantonment Co-Operative Housing Society (LCCHS) in March 1975, a mere 47 years ago.
Trash dump as you enter Charrar
Despite its longevity, Charrar’s geographical size has considerably been reduced (1535 acres were ‘legally’ claimed for DHA Phase 1 alone). This acquisition comprises Charrar’s agricultural and common lands where many families also resided. Those who have lived here since partition attest to how land was acquired, compensation awarded, and relocation navigated. Injustice was embedded within this process and ranged from no to unequal land/monetary compensation, to the use of brute force for removing families and abolishing their homes. This acquisition was justified for developmental purposes under the guise of national interest and housing shortages. DHA also contained Charrar’s size through the construction of a boundary wall (that partially surrounds it) since the early 2000s. This structure is normalised in the imagination of the villagers to an extent that most have taken a few minutes to think about its presence when asked. The wall’s initiation has often been linked by residents to military dictator Pervez Musharraf’s tenure when deliberations on flattening the village were underway. It is said that General Musharraf surveyed Charrar aerially and declared it as too massive to be razed. Ever since, the wall has been in place to physically pronounce the boundary between DHA and Charrar.
The boundary wall that partially surrounds Charrar
The boundary wall that partially surrounds Charrar
Construction happening in DHA just over Charrar's boundary wall
Construction happening in DHA just over Charrar’s boundary wall
As Charrar’s arable footprint decreased, with most of its agricultural land subsumed and utilized for DHA’s developmental projects, the village underwent a series of socio-economic and cultural changes. As its physical size was reduced drastically, the social fabric of the village also transformed. People, who earlier, worked in a slow-paced, communal fashion on agricultural fields to sustain themselves now had to seek alternatives. Those, with prior large landholdings, who could afford to move out into wealthy DHA, did so. Those who still owned small properties in Charrar began to rent them out. Others lived on rent and ventured into DHA in search of employment. The village that once grew its own produce, and supplied it to the market now had to turn to the market for its sustenance. Its socio-spatial structure became more compartmentalised and entered into a cycle of dependency with DHA.
Clogged sewerage and goats grazing off trash piles (the Cantonment board has officially forbidden life-stock in the area)
Recycling points exist but trash collection continues to be problematic
Strained space for Charrar has resulted in encroachment over public spaces like this street
Today, Charrar is home to recorded 22,760 individuals (as per the 2017 census). However, many estimate that at least 30,000 individuals populate the area, a majority of whom are renters. The locale, very recently, has also seen families from flood-struck zones of the country move in. Although there is no general consensus, residents say that there is at least a 60:40 ratio of renters to owners present. The renters have either migrated individually or with their families, mostly in search of better socio-economic opportunities. Some have homes back in their villages while others have given up one rented home for another. Given the lack of community networks, and strain on resources, most renters consider the villages they have left behind as their ‘true homes’. DHA continues to thrive upon the inflow of labour from Charrar. “They work as guards, in houses, or shuttering/wood-work/paint and construction jobs (in DHA)”, residents have told us time and again. This housing giant, now 13 separate developments strong, has expanded rapidly and acquired the land of many other rural settlements like Charrar; although in many cases, the homestead of such settlements have also gradually disappeared, raising important questions about the long-term impacts of such forms of dispossession.
Commercial centres are most developed around the entry/exit points and frequented by both DHA and Charrar residents
A Photo Studio: one of the many services available in the area
In Charrar’s case, DHA has constructed its housing on Charrar’s land, and Charrar’s dependence on DHA for livelihood have made them both indispensable for one another. This relationship is extractive as DHA residents, despite the plethora of services available within their vicinity, frequent Charrar for cheaper alternatives for dry cleaning, fresh produce, electronics repair and the like. Charrar residents, on the other hand, have restricted mobility and either cannot afford or are forbidden access (such as to parks) within DHA. On top of this, access is policed. Malik (renter in Charrar) has been working in DHA for the past 2 years was stopped and inquired at the check post thrice on the day I spoke to him. There was no specific reason for this.
Charrar graveyard is named after the deceased resident ‘Muneer Shaheed (martyred) ’
Charrar graveyard is named after the deceased resident ‘Muneer Shaheed (martyred) ’
The graveyard’s empty space also serves as a playground. Cases of sexual abuse have been reported here.
The graveyard’s empty space also serves as a playground. Cases of sexual abuse have been reported here.
DHA enjoys the impunity it receives vis-à-vis class and institutional privilege. This is not to say that Charrar is a silent recipient of DHA’s actions. Charrar residents have mobilised in the face of poor practices —  to say it euphemistically — by their powerful neighbour. In 2004, for instance, DHA tried to acquire Charrar’s graveyard, which resulted in violent friction, and death of a Charrar resident, Muneer, after which DHA was forced to retreat and offer compensations to the deceased’s family. In the negotiations which ensued afterwards, Charrar lost some of its land in return for continued possession of the graveyard. However, there is much that is still unheard and unattended to despite their best efforts. Charrar and DHA co-exist but far as equals.

All pictures, unless specified have been taken by the author. 

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