Wednesday, July 24, 2013
The Urban land question and squatters
A couple of weeks ago the Blantyre City Assembly demolished illegal settlements at the foot of Soche Hill. Most of the squatters cried foul after investing their hard earned money to no avail. Blantyre is not the only city beset by a problem of squatters. In the capital, there have been squatter settlements between area 49 and 18. Squatter settlements have developed in Ntandire, Tsiliza and area 51 close to the Kanengo Industrial area. Squatters also took over some Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC) in area 49 and there have been court battles with the “land owners”. Apparently some of the squatters are not average persons, but individuals of high standing that can afford services of private legal counsel, but are frustrated by deliberate red tape that fuels corruption in public institutions responsible for land distribution. The issue I raise is who really legally gets land to build homes in our urban areas? Or put it differently, whose interests does the Malawi Housing Corporation, Ministry of Lands and City Assemblies really serve? Normally, the city assemblies, the Ministry of Lands and the Malawi Housing Corporation are generally the main players in the land market for residential properties. I am not sure whether these institutions have taken cognisance of the rising population in the urban areas. The reaction to the rising demand for decent accommodation in the urban areas seems to fall on deaf years as the public land system appears too inflexible. One would be tempted to think that the public land system is deliberately failing to respond to needs of housing because of an institutionalised system of graft and corruption. The question again is who do these institutions really serve? Their inaction often crowded with one of the worst forms of bureaucracy has led to squatter suburbs in our cities. Sometimes, I tend to think of these institutions as a financial scam that is duping the public by promising them access to land to build their homes and collecting money from them. It would appear to be no different from the many tricksters in town running extortion rackets. Honestly, if individuals go in the Lands Ministry Offices, City Assemblies and the Malawi Housing Corporation and pay a fee and never get land, what would you call it? You can’t pay for a service and never get one. It appears only those politically connected or willing to pay a bribe are well served by these institutions. Consequently, desperate individuals have now taken matters in their own hands and developing properties without any plans or approvals. Sometimes, I wonder whether any serious planning takes place in these institutions. The Malawi population is growing at a very fast rate and the demand of housing is ever on the surge. We have a lot of individuals that are willing to build their own homes, but are frustrated by the institutionalised corruption that is a norm in the Lands Ministry, City Assemblies and the Malawi Housing Corporation. How many bribes are we going to pay? A bribe at ESCOM, a bribe at Road Traffic, a bribe to the Traffic cops and goes the list. If we can quantify bribes, the treasury is probably loosing billions of resources that can be used to stock our hospitals of essential drugs and develop our education system. Currently there is what I would call two types of squatters. We have the urban poor that have been more affected by lack of decent low cost housing and living in squalor. Most of these individuals encroach public land and build structures that barely come close to decent housing. Later on these squatters start selling their piece of their encroached land to a relatively affluent group of squatters, that I would loosely call “middle class” at a high price. Sometimes the same piece of land is sold to multiple individuals to maximise “returns”. Such is the reality that confronts the urban poor. The “middle class” category of individuals has been frustrated by public institutions to access land and has probably been on the waiting list for many years. Out of such encroached land comes decent homes, but not planned and gives a lot of complications with respect to provision of public utilities such as water and electricity. Never mind the erratic supply of water and electricity, it qualifies for a Phd thesis. The city assemblies in the process lose a lot in terms of potential revenue from city rates as such properties bear no formal registration. Demarcating and registering such encroached land in official registry is a costly process and takes years. City assemblies loose revenue that they need to provide various services. This group of squatters is well organised and has fought some successful battles in court. I don’t think our urban areas should develop suburbs from squatters and create towns in such a manner. While the Land Act has been revised and passed by parliament, serious questions still exist in the execution of land access. Institutions at the pinnacle of land distribution remain one the most corrupt in the country, and potential property developers are frustrated and continue to take matters into their own hands. Is it a question that no one at the political level cares? The question we should ask: whose interests does the Ministry of Lands, City Assemblies and the Malawi Housing Corporation serve? Surely, not the average person that wants to own a home or property but something else.