Where are students supposed to live?

Last year’s CDA action against hostels exposed a paradox: Education is a priority. But are students?


LAST OCTOBER, OSTENSIBLYacting on a tip received on the citizens portal, authorities stormed a house in Islamabad’s E-11 sector. It was early afternoon but the residents—students with typically muddled schedules—were mostly asleep. Startled, they rubbed their eyes open to the sight of their housemates being dragged outside by uniformed officers. One boy struggled to free his hand from the grip of a cop; in the other, he brandished a toothbrush, pleading to at least be allowed to rinse his mouth. Another lunged for a towel as he was yanked out of the shower; others scrambled for their belongings as they were shepherded outside.    

As the boys huddled outside their home—some scared, some furious, all dishevelled—they tried to make sense of the situation. Their E-11 residence was a three-story house with 14 rooms and a monthly rent of 2,35,000 rupees. It was officially rented by two students but about 50 boys lived there, roughly four to a room. Yes, they had received a notice some days ago, informing them that their residence— technically a hostel—was against the law, but they thought the situation was under control; they didn’t think they would be out on the street

“Last October alone, the CDA raided as many as 80 private hostels across the capital.”

There are nearly two dozen public and private universities in Islamabad but only a handful provide accommodation to their students, instead forcing them to navigate a new and often alienating city all on their own. According to Sadiq Wazir, president of the Islamabad Hostel Association in 2019, Islamabad has over 640 hostels, which collectively house between 60,000 and 80,0000 students and professionals. According to the city’s Capital Development Authority (CDA), however, private hostels constitute “a non-conforming use of land” and, consequently, are illegal. 

The CDA had ostensibly been alerted to the existence of the E-11 hostel by a complaint: yahaan ziaada taa’dad main bachelors reh rahein hain, there are too many bachelors living under one roof. These ‘bachelors’ were students of the National Defence University (NDU), Bahria University and Air University—three institutions that do not provide on-campus student hostels. But the E-11 raid was not a one-off. Last October alone, the CDA raided as many as 80 private hostels across the capital. “Universities don’t have hostels, the CDA has banned hostels,” protested Daniyal Abdullah, one of the evicted students. “Where should students go now?”          

DANIYAL IS Afifth-semester public policy student at NDU, bespectacled and earnest. He is from Islamabad but because his parents passed away 10 years ago, the hostel in E-11 was his home too. The day of the raid, inundated with urgent calls from harrowed classmates, he abandoned class halfway. There wasn’t enough time to be indignant; the boys needed to know where they would sleep that night. About 30 of them occupied the pavement outside the hostel, clutching their belongings, barely registering the policemen who had returned with batons. 

“22 universities fall within the Islamabad Capital Territory; 15 are public, the rest private. “

In a video released on Twitter by activist Ammar Rashid, a slightly frazzled Daniyal makes an appeal to whoever might be listening. “The government used to seal all of Islamabad with their illegal demands,” he protests, “When they raised our fees, we didn’t protest. We have now been yanked out of our beds, thrown out along with our belongings, forced onto the street, forced to give a dharna here.”  

In the background, a voice grumbles: road clear karo, yeh logon ke liye museebat hai.   

According to a list maintained by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) on its website, some 22 universities fall within the Islamabad Capital Territory, of which 15 are public and the rest private. The HEC’s guidelines for new universities state that “that provision will be made in conformity with the statutes and the regulations for a) the residence of students, not residing with their parents or guardians, in the hostels established and maintained by the institution, b) the supervision, physical and general welfare of students”. In the general criteria appended to the guidelines, however, hostels are categorised as ‘desirable’, not compulsory. In its inspection criteria, the HEC does set out a detailed list of inquiries:  

■ What provision has been made for the residence of students? 
■ What is the maximum number of boarders that can be lodged in the hostel? 
■ Is there any arrangement for a mess? 
■ Is it subsidised by the institution or run entirely from the students contribution? 
■ Is there a common room?
■ What is the arrangement for medical aid?
■ What are the qualifications of the warden?
■ Does the warden reside inside or near the hostel?

“The roti dries up within minutes of being served, and the food is tasteless. I have to eat out most days.”

“Each year, at orientation, new students are told by the university that locations have been earmarked for on-campus accommodation, that funds have also been allocated,” said Daniyal. “Buss kaam shuru karney ki deyr hai.” At the moment, however, the National Defence University—where he studies—does not provide accommodation to any of its students, male or female. In December, Soch made calls to the admissions offices of all the universities listed by the HEC and confirmed that at least five public universities do not have any hostel facilities for their universities. These universities had a collective enrolment of 436,799 in the academic year 2015-2016—a number that is likely to have increased in subsequent years.

Of course, universities that do provide housing aren’t necessarily able to accommodate the students who need it. Bahria University, for instance, has hostels for women but when Maria Nawaz, from Azad Kashmir, began studying there in 2018, there was no room for her. “So I shifted to a private hostel nearby.” She pays 20,000 rupees per month, almost double of what the Bahria hostel would have cost but is happy with her decision: “They did not have mess food for the students, the bathrooms were on a separate floor and they do not even help students with the luggage.” Some of her fellow students have moved out and into private hostels too, she says.  

Jalil Ahmad, a student from Ghotki, moved out of the International Islamic University’s male hostel because of the terrible conditions there. “Although the rooms could only accommodate four boys, some rooms had nine boys in them. The shared washroom was also in a disgusting condition and smelled bad.” But he isn’t particularly happy with where he lives—a private hostel in Chak Shahzad. For one, it is a 30-minute drive from his university. For another, the facilities are so poor, he ends up paying out of pocket for things he shouldn’t have to—like food. “The roti dries up within minutes of being served, and the food is tasteless. I have to eat out most days. The professionals who live here make a lot of noise, so it becomes harder for us to study.” 

Back home in Ghotki, his father earns a meagre 35,000 rupees, but ends up sending Jalil 15,000 rupees for his expenses. “Due to the lack of space and facilities in university hostels, private hostels have the leverage to keep students in whatever conditions they please.” 

A WEEK AFTER the protest, Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat, deputy commissioner Islamabad, issued an advisory to all hostels operating in the city, directing them to maintain a record of all residents entering and exiting hostel premises and forbidding students—who are generally all legal adults, it is worth noting—from staying out past 10pm without parental permission. 

“Hostels have become a den for imposters. Whenever we catch criminals in the city—be it for drugs, kidnapping or terrorism—they all pose as students,” explained DC Shafqaat, speaking to Soch over the phone in December. He said he issued the advisory because “in the past few months, we have had to solve three kidnapping cases—all the girls were from hostels.” 

Last September, he said, a woman was kidnapped in F-8. “Her family members were not informed by the hostel authorities even though she has not returned to her room at night. When we approached them, the admin said the girl didn’t live there, but her hostel mates confirmed otherwise,” said DC Shafqaat. If they are allowed to run such businesses, the administrators must also be held responsible for the students they house. 

Still, the deputy commissioner said he was sympathetic to the students’ plight. “I have tried talking to the CDA to not seal the hostels, but to improve laws around them,” he said. In 2016, the Islamabad High Court passed a judgment in which hostels were deemed in violation of zoning regulations as they were a profiting business operating in a residential area. Faisal Naeem, director of the CDA’s building control section (BCS) and head of the operation against private hostels, says the hostels were issued multiple warnings. “But they have not moved out even after three years.” 

Who runs these hostels? It is difficult to provide a definitive answer but at least some, it appears, are run by former students scarred by their own experiences of navigating the city. 

“When you do not have accommodation or relatives in Islamabad,” the official allegedly said, “why do you come here to study?”

Saqib Wazir, from Dera Ghazi Khan graduated from Islamic University in 2007 and set up his first hostel, in I-8, in 2008. He manages multiple hostels now, all located in residential areas. “I also had to live in communal living spaces without proper facilities. I wanted to make sure new students don’t face the same issues.” Saqib says he provides room, food, hot water and transport for 10,000 rupees and above. His hostels are his sole source of income. Others aren’t even run as for-profit businesses. Imtiaz Ali Mallah, from Naushero Feroz, has been living in Islamabad for the past five years. After hopping from hostel to hostel, he finally began his own set-up. “Managing this house only helps me with my monthly expenditure,” he said. 

According to Faisal Naeem, there are a hundred or so hostels in the city—not 640—and although about 80 were raided by the BCS team, only six or seven were sealed for good. “The universities in Islamabad are made for the residents of Islamabad,” he said. “If these people want to come here from around the country, they should either live in university hostels or live legally.” This is not quite correct: many universities in the capital are federal universities, with specifically allocated seats for students from different parts of the country. Speaking to Soch in December, Naeem said his team had sealed hostels in the I-8, G-9 and G-10 sectors but had stopped the drive to give people the chance to relocate. 

“We will resume operation in a month,” he vowed. “All 100 or so hostels will be closed.” 

That day, as the students protested outside their sealed E-11 hostel, Gohar Zaman, assistant commissioner for Saddar area, eventually arrived for a dialogue. “He asked students where they were from,” recalled Daniyal, adding that when one said ‘Sargodha,’ the commissioner told him to take a bus and leave. “When you do not have accommodation or relatives in Islamabad,” the official allegedly said, “why do you come here to study?”

MANY YOUNG MENand women from nearby districts—especially Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Peshawar and Gilgit Baltistan—flock to Islamabad because universities are either sub-par or non-existent in their hometowns. “Higher education is championed by every technocrat, every political hopeful, by bureaucrats and philanthropists,” said Ataullah Awais Anjum, a final year student at NDU. “We have universities and we have students but there is no concern for where students will live.” Awais, who is from Azad Kashmir, ends up spending more on rent than on tuition: 90,000 rupees per semester for the former, 60,000 rupees for the latter.

“Here we are again, protesting for our basic rights. Moving here has been a failure for me.”   

Some students come from even further away. Nineteen-year-old Mehmood Baloch is from Kalat, about 18 hours southwest of Islamabad. He was admitted into the International Relations programme at NDU on a quota seat. “Young people move to the capital for better opportunities and a cleaner environment, in a city that does not operate under oppressive laws,” he said. “The education system is much better than that of the University of Balochistan. I can compare the two like sky and earth.” 

“The security situation is always bad in Kalat—we are on the roads all the time, protesting our rights.” Baloch, who took part in many of these protests himself. lives in a hostel that also received a CDA notice. He says Islamabad has let him down. “Here we are again, protesting for our basic rights. Moving here has been a failure for me.”   

This precarity is not just expensive; it is also disruptive. In 2017, when Sana moved from Skardu for her undergraduate degree, she didn’t think she would spend so much time trying to find a place to study. Now, she calls herself a “permanent hostelite”. Yet, so far, each residence has proven temporary. 

Here is a list of where Sana has lived so far:

1. A hostel in I-8—shut down abruptly, in the middle of her first-semester exams.
2. A hostel in G-9 where she paid for the month but only stayed 12 days. “I didn’t have time to look for a good hostel,” she said, “I just moved into the one first one I found.”  
3. A hostel in G-10, also shut down as her second semester drew to a close.
4. Brief respite at a relative’s house.
5. A hostel in F-8 where after a few months, the neighbourhood men began loitering on motorbikes: “We couldn’t step outside because the minute we would, we’d be hounded by bike riders who’d hit us, touch us.” Sana and her friends eventually gathered the courage to complain to the police—but the hostel warden yelled at them for doing so. “We were told we were defaming the hostel… I was shocked.” 
6. A hostel in E-11. While Daniyal and Awais were dealing with the CDA, Sana and her housemates were told to restrict their movements outside, so that the unregistered hostel could remain under the radar and running. 

“The case is currently being heard but, for the moment, a stay order against further CDA action has given students some respite. “

Proper hostel facilities were among the demands issued by students during the nationwide Student Solidarity March last November. Activist Ammar Rashid, a staunch advocate for the rights of students noted that while hostels cannot be constructed overnight, universities ought to at least begin working on them immediately, as well as increase their budgets for student accommodation. “In the meantime, they should let students live in residential areas. A residential area is for living and students use the houses to live there.”

Following the hostel raids last fall, 13 hostel owners, all members of the informal association, filed a petition in the Supreme Court. The case is currently being heard but, for the moment, a stay order against further CDA action has given students some respite. It is unclear how long it will last; for some, the case itself is an additional burden. “I had to go to court for a hearing on Monday and the same day I had a very important presentation,” said Ahsan Saleem. 

Meanwhile, Sana is now in her seventh semester. Her mother moved from Skardu to live with her. It seemed to be the only way her daughter could study in Islamabad in peace. ■

ANNAM LODHIis a former Soch staffer. Additional reporting by JAZA AQIL
Header illustration by MARIUM ALI

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

CORRECTION: Gohar Zaman’s designation was miswritten in an earlier version of this piece.

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