Inequality becomes more visible after Pakistan’s 2005 earthquake

Published on 30 September 2015

Image of Miguel Loureiro

Miguel Loureiro

Research Fellow

In the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, the housing reconstruction process not only made pre-earthquake social and economic circumstances more visible, but also increased some of these divisions.

Written on the bumper: “What do you know of loyalty; loyalty existed when houses were kaccha and people were pakka”

After the earthquake, General Musharraf, the military dictator ruling the country at the time, promised “a new house for every destroyed one”. However, the federal government could only afford to give partial subsidies, which covered less than half of the total cost of a house. The remaining money had to come from elsewhere and in this region it usually meant coming in the form of remittances from migrant family members working in Pakistan’s urban centres or abroad.

Although building a new house is often a preferred way to spend remittances in regions where there are very few opportunities to invest, prior to the earthquake many migrant families still lived in kaccha (non-cemented) houses or simple pakka (cemented) houses. The earthquake and the government compensation gave migrants an incentive to improve their houses.

Building a new house, particularly a pakka one became far more expensive however, with inflation increasing the price of new materials. The motto to “Build Back Better” gave wealthier families the excuse to use the new building codes to display their status, creating a greater rift between wealthier and poorer families.

The housing reconstruction did not increase inequality as such but rather it made pre-existing inequality far more visible

Indeed from the late 1970s onwards, when migrants in the Gulf countries started sending home remittances, many never thought of building a new house as they already had one. Instead they used the money to extend their existing house, or to buy appliances, such as fridges, satellite dishes, microwave ovens, and so on.

Post-earthquake, having access to remittances meant people were not only able building houses faster, but also building more elaborate ones, often multi-storied and with colourful roofs. A correlation quickly developed between place of emigration and roof style. And, in this socially stratified society, many migrants from non-elite backgrounds challenged prevailing social hierarchies through the use of ostentatious houses and roofs as symbols of wealth and status.

New houses and new roofs in post-earthquake Pakistan-administered Kashmir

Building a new house soon became an imperative linked to status and honour. While everybody wanted to “build back better”, subsidies alone wouldn’t allow them even to build back the same (albeit a few structural changes).

So the ones that could afford it, built better; while the others built the same – and but became indebted in the process of doing so.

Big changes in the house, small changes in the home

Post-earthquake reconstruction gave migrant families a new aim: to rebuild their houses in a ‘proper’ way, which meant using modern materials such as concrete, preparing for future earthquakes by using light tin roofs instead of large wooden beams or flat slab roofs, and creating more housing units for future family expansion. With population growth and smaller living spaces, reconstruction allowed for a refashioning of housing structures with a preference for building more single housing units instead of the old extensions to the big family house.

Post-earthquake, the courtyard took over the role of the roof as the unifying element of the family home. Previously households within the family had their own space within the house, whereas now, these spaces became detached and had their own roof. Due to the limited availability of land for housing reconstruction, these new houses were often built on the same plot as the original family house existed, creating a cluster of buildings – a compound, with a central courtyard.

Younger households, particularly ones with husbands in the Gulf, now had an opportunity to build separate houses and affirm their independence from the patriarch.

But while the house – the physical structure – might have changed, the home – the domestic arena for cooperation and competition between family members – remained the same. With these new single housing units being built within the same compound, also as a way of maintaining patrilocal residence, there was no breakdown of the classical patriarchy. Women’s access to resources was still mediated through the family. The competition for a young migrant’s attention and remittances between his wife and his parents and siblings remained the same.

Build back better or build back the same?

Since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, build back better has been advocated after many other disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in the USA in 2005 and Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, as well as the Pakistan’s earthquake. But “better” in what way? Post-earthquake reconstruction here intensified pre-existing social and economic divisions.

As the physical organisation of the house was turned upside down, with the courtyard replacing the roof as the unifying element of the family, so too was ostentation turned inside out, with the outburst of colourful houses and colourful tin roofs as symbols of wealth and status.

Although many viewed the earthquake as the main reason for people to build new, flashy houses and new types of relationships within the family, the wealth for these new houses was not new, nor was there a breakdown of the classical patriarchy.