City ‘security’

Published January 3, 2016
The writer is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.
The writer is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

AT a recent event in Karachi hosted by our business elites, a former army general asserted that Karachi’s residents are ‘suffering from an existential threat’ and security needs to be central to our discussions on economy and governance. Statements like these generally raise the question: which security threats must we address and how? Seldom do we ask that, if security is a commodity and its provision a process, for whom should it be provided and how much?

Securitisation of cities can be understood as the claim that a city is at risk from a host of threats: natural disasters, migration, crime, terrorism, or war — or ‘wars’ against these threats — and that to counter them extraordinary measures must be taken. In Karachi’s case, I describe this process as ‘selective securitisation’, which determines where and for whom, security infrastructure and resources are to be provided.

Selective securitisation can be understood as an act of convincing people that certain individuals or certain spaces are more exposed to existential threats than others, that cannot be countered through traditional means and alternative efforts need to be taken to ensure safety, such as devising advanced security protocols. This creates a demand for private security companies and specialised security units under state command. In theory, this appears logical, but selective securitisation is deeply connected to the concept of power.

Foucault wrote, ‘security is exercised over a whole population’, but power is exercised upon a territory, a given space. In Karachi, security and power are intimately connected; when those in power over-exert themselves and their right to the city, their demands for greater security increase. This generates insecurity in urban areas, both for the heavily securitised and the ‘under-securitised’, who feel more ‘exposed’ to threats than their ‘powerful’ fellow citizens.


Selective securitisation is under way in Karachi.


A few trends are visible. First, higher-income neighbourhoods draw upon security infrastructure otherwise meant for the public at large because of our tolerance of ‘VIP culture’, and the acceptance governments have shown towards it. Second, there is greater visibility of police infrastructure in such neighbourhoods which appears to be changing the urban design by strengthening divides between so-called gated communities and downtrodden neighbourhoods.

Third, the police are dissatisfied that their resources are utilised by the bureaucratic, business, and police elites. They lament that corruption in upper echelons obstructs finances from trickling down to thanas and are instead diverted to ‘security duties’, forcing stations’ officials to indulge in corruption to make ends meet.

Additionally, ‘target hardening’ that we see so frequently on Karachi’s streets breeds contempt within the minds of those deprived of good services by the police and those for whom these barriers obstruct free movement. The increased presence of security officials within small residential vicinity often generates feelings of constantly being watched.

Academics Coaffee, O’Hare and Hawkes­worth write that installing security infrastructure such as barricades or checkpoints can have intimidating effects. “Such ‘hardened’ features may be both pervasive and unsubtle.... Obtrusive security measures have the capacity to radically alter public experiences of space and in some cases lead to exclusionary practices of a range of negative emotional responses.”

For instance, excessive police infrastructure outside private properties or public spa­ces can intrude upon roads otherwise meant for open access, dividing society between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Similar exclusion is created through mil­itary inf­ra­structure, for instance outside paramilitary headquarters that have fortified over the last decade and were previously heritage sites open to public. This is also experienced in certain cantonment areas where one may be subjected to layers of security checks.

To paraphrase academics Becker and Muller, securitising selective spaces to make them look safer is a policy oriented towards attracting more investment, thereby encouraging neoliberals to create the illusion of a safe city — or safer spaces within cities, often at the expense of excluding ‘undesirables’ from these spaces. To prevent the resentment of excluded residents from erupting into action, the state needs politicised police forces or strong-armed paramilitary forces. This can create the impression for security off­icials that criminal spaces and not just criminals need to be sealed off from the elites. This encourages a security culture ridden with corruption, inequality, and controlled, in many instances, by VIPs.

While security-centric approaches may be needed, Pakistan’s security apparatus should consider bringing to the table developers, architects, and researchers who can contribute to sustainable long-term security policies that encourage inclusion of all citizens and promote equality. Are these not primary res­pon­sibilities of democratic governments?

The writer is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

zoha.waseem@kcl.ac.uk

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2016

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