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Karachi: City of lights that was

Updated November 21, 2015


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

There is a debate about environmental concerns surrounding Lahore’s Orange Line project specially since there is a view that the line will pass perilously close to monuments such as Chauburji and the Shalamar Gardens, obscuring or even damaging them.

Not too dissimilar debates marked the metro bus projects in both Lahore and Islamabad where concerned members of civil society and experts raised many objections to the construction of the raised track, its impact on the environment, including the felling of trees and eradication of green belts etc.

Since I haven’t followed these projects minutely and am unaware of their intricacies, I don’t know how many of these concerns were accommodated, or if there were public hearings at all or if the government just steamrolled any objections altogether.

Related: City heritage under threat: Kapoorthala House residents move LHC against Orange Line

But to me, a chronic Karachiite, no matter where in the world I may live for months, even years, Lahore and Islamabad remain a major source of envy. Yes, even jealousy, as the two cities debate and discuss the downside of development, the pros and cons of putting in place a certain type of public transport network vis-à-vis another. They debate what’s the right and appropriate type of development or technology. Experts may question whether the metro bus is the best mode of public transport or if the fixed rail ought to be preferable; whether surface networks better serve the needs of a bustling metropolis or if the underground offers the best solution.

Karachi, which many saw as the only ‘real’ city in Pakistan through the 1960s, now presents a picture of neglect.

Whatever one says about the attitude of successive Punjab governments and those in charge of the federal capital in terms of accommodating the legitimate concerns of citizens about negative aspects of certain projects, one cannot deny that infrastructure development is taking place.

On each occasion, I have flown into Islamabad and Lahore it hasn’t taken a gap of years to find easily identifiable evidence of a certain amount of dynamism. Even when trees are felled to add lanes and underpasses, somehow the sum total of greenery appears the same. Someone must be planting trees in place of those sadly felled. The general cleanliness is remarkably pleasing.

In each of the two cities, there appear several tree-lined avenues as do designated green belts and parks. Regardless of the maddening volumes of traffic in both cities, these give the impression of being cared for. Even those who may have misplaced urban priorities seem to be well-meaning.

In contrast, Karachi, which many thought was the only ‘real’ city in Pakistan through the 1960s and bey­ond, now presents a picture of total neglect. What was once called the ‘city of lights’ now appears to have been abandoned. Today, it seems to consist of thousa­nds of heaps of garbage, of litter and of dug-up streets.

Nobody seems to care for it; no one interested in claiming ownership, unless of course it is for the crassest personal gain and greed. This in turn manifests itself in the haphazard and unplanned vertical construction that you see sprouting around the most expensive parts of the city.

I may not understand who allows such high-density office/ residential/ commercial projects when there is no accompanying enhancement of water supply and sewerage systems, road networks or for that matter parking facilities, making those forced to use either by visiting, renting or buying in any such project utterly miserable (even passersby are not spared the agony of clogged-up traffic). But I do know why this happens and so do you.

Just a few days ago, the Sindh chief minister was complaining that the prime minister promises federally funded projects but then funds are not forthcoming. The central government retorted with its own factsheet and quoted the example of the multimillion-gallon bulk water supply scheme to Karachi called K-4. It said the federal funds pledged for the critically needed project had been disbursed months ago while the Sindh government which was supposed to make available 50pc of the project cost out of its own resources was still to come up with its share.

Understandably, there is politics involved here. You can take your pick who to believe and so can I. But that isn’t the point, is it? In all this to-ing and fro-ing who is left holding the short end of the stick? The people of Karachi.

The compromises made by the most numerically superior representative party of the city, the MQM, in terms of accepting watered-down local bodies even when the much-delayed civic elections are being finally held means the city will remain voiceless. Even when MQM had teeth it failed to give its voters a viable public transport system.

The myopic PPP, which should have tried to make most of the situation once the MQM appeared sidelined by pumping in funds and carrying out exemplary development in Karachi to win over support, seems to have forsaken the city as its electoral interests remain restricted to one or two constituencies here and mostly in rural Sindh.

Today ‘development’ in Karachi is tragically synonymous with haphazard, misprioritised projects initiated with the specific purpose of milking the metropolis for the last penny possible so the pockets of the decision-makers and their cronies are lined.

One Parween Rehman may have been silenced but there remain many voices advocating sane and sustainable urban planning and development. If you haven’t read or heard architect and town-planner Arif Hasan, I suggest you do.

There are solutions aplenty and viable ones at that. But is there anyone who will step forward to take ownership of Karachi just like an array of military (Lt-Gen Jilani) and civilian leaders from Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif to Pervaiz Elahi to the Sharifs again did for Lahore?

As I have driven around the city of my birth these past few days, I have been filled with nostalgia of the city that was in my childhood in the 1960s and despair at what I see today. Will someone rescue it or will it be left to choke on its own vomit?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2015