Smoker's Corner: A Beast of a City

Updated January 29, 2017

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Imagine this: A vast arid area on the shores of a sea full of all kinds of fish and other sea life. An area with a long sandy shore, a ‘natural harbour’ and moderate-to-hot weather. Yet, this area, today called Karachi, Pakistan’s largest and most peopled metropolis, became a city just 250 years ago. Compared to most other major cities of the world (including those within Pakistan), Karachi is a rather new city.

Question is, even when the population of the world had begun to bulge after the invention of farming 15,000 years ago; and when people continued to spread out and colonise various areas to settle down on, why was this piece of land we now call Karachi was largely ignored, or maybe even avoided?

The first major towns and cities around the world emerged on the banks of rivers or along seashores. The waters provided fish to eat and sell, water to drink and wash (in case of rivers), and trade routes and links with lands which could not be reached through overland trails.

Karachi had it all. A pristine sea with lots of fish, a natural harbour and a 16,000 sq mile delta from where the mighty Indus River flows into the Arabian Sea.

Still, from the first recorded history of this area some 2,500 years ago, till the 18th century, this area never had a large population other than a sprinkling of a few fishing villages populated by extremely impoverished folks who were largely cut off from events and civilisations occurring elsewhere.

A friend who works at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), once wondered whether this area was ever meant to become a city. Did ancient people know something about this area which those who settled here after the 18th century, didn’t? I have been lucky enough to have repeatedly visited numerous major urban centres of the world, but never have I seen a city so chaotic as Karachi where I was born and reside.

Indeed, Karachi has enjoyed phases during which it became a glorious, bustling centre of trade, business and entertainment. But such phases have been mostly overshadowed by an unsettling continuity which, especially from the 1970s onward, has seen Karachi become perhaps one of the most difficult cities to govern.

Planners, economists, governments and the Pakistani state have, on numerous occasions, tried to devise ways to shape some semblance of order here, but they have increasingly failed. The city seems always to be on the brink of some political, economic and even environmental catastrophe.

Over 20 million people reside in Karachi today. It has a population density of over 24,000 people per square kilometer. One of the reasons given for Karachi being so unmanageable is that it was never supposed to have so many people. It is arid and doesn’t have much fresh water. Historically, its fate as a piece of land depended entirely on its ecosystem which includes the sea and the thick mangrove forests which sprang from the mouth of the Indus River delta. The sea has continued to get polluted and the mangroves are vanishing.

As a child I used to live in the once ‘posh’ locality of Bath Island in the city’s Clifton area. There was a vast empty land of hardened mud near our house. The area used to get flooded during monsoon rains and actual fish would emerge! The fish used to vanish once the waters would evaporate, leaving behind their dried skins. Did the fish evaporate too? And how did they emerge? Did they fall from the sky with the rain? This mystery was finally explained to me many years later by my WWF friend.

Millions of years ago the empty piece of land near our Bath Island house was under sea. When the sea started to recede, an evolutionary process altered the mating cycle of the fish. To survive they began to bury their eggs inside the ground. These eggs would hatch once the rains would flood the area. The fish would emerge, grow rapidly and again lay and bury their eggs just before the waters would evaporate. This process continued for thousands of years, and we, as children in the 1970s, actually saw it happening.

However, ever since the early 1980s, a congested and crammed gated community of bungalows and apartment blocks sits on that once empty land. The fish are long gone, unable anymore to fulfil the role nature had designated for them.

Karachi, from being an area which, for thousands of years, supported nothing more than a few primitive fishing communities, witnessed its first population bulge in the late 19th century. The British annexed the area in 1839. Karachi was called Kolachi and sometimes Kurachee at the time. It was a small, muddy town with an embryonic harbour and about 30,000 people lived here, mostly Sindhi and Baloch (Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist).

When the British began to develop Karachi’s infrastructure and connect it through rail with the rest of British India, migration to Karachi shot up. It became an important trading post. In late 1891, its population shot up to 105,000. The city’s wildlife — which had included foxes, wolves, wild boars, raccoons and various kinds of birds — began to vanish, leaving behind just eagles (kites), crows and wild dogs. Overwhelmed, the suddenly populated area struck back. In 1896, the city was overcome by deadly bubonic plague. Hundreds perished.

After the plague began to recede, the British made efforts to keep the city clean. Karachi did become one of the cleanest cities in British India, but it kept hitting back with flash floods (e.g. in 1906), and various elusive infections and viruses.

After the city became part of Pakistan and its capital in 1947, it witnessed its second major population bulge. Its population was 435,887 in 1941. By 1951 it had shot up to 1,068,459. It grew rapidly when the city became an epicenter of industrialisation in the 1960s.

Then, as the population continued to grow, the city began to be engulfed by frequent rioting, flash floods, emergence of enigmatic flu viruses, mounting garbage dumps, congested slums and the environmental consequences of the vanishing mangrove forests and a polluted sea.

Crime is rampant, ethnic tensions often flare up and militants come here from all over to hide (and generate revenue through crime).

In 2009 a senior officer in the city’s traffic department told me that he usually took a break to go back to his ancestral village (in the Punjab). He then added: “If I don’t do that, I will end up in a mental institution. Everyone is mad here. It’s something in the air [of Karachi].”

In an email, my friend at WWF summed it up this way: “This place [Karachi] was never supposed to be a city. So many invaders conquered India, so many dynasties ruled Sindh, but for thousands of years, none of them ever tried to build a city in this area. This place was avoided and left to the devices of its sea, shrubs, animals and birds.

“Maybe they could sense that Karachi as a piece of land would collapse if encroached upon. As a piece of land Karachi was a rebellious beast with its heat, winds, dust and strange arid weather. Starting with the British, many tried to tame it, but instead of the land becoming tame, it [the land] turned its inhabitants into beasts!”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 29th, 2017