Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Every time Pakistan’s largest city Karachi is struck by a natural calamity, angry voices begin to ring from within and outside the city. Opposition parties and the city government blame the provincial government and then all three point a finger at the federal government, which in turn criticises the provincial and city set-ups.

Much of the critical clatter in this regard is politically motivated. What gets buried underneath the loud barrage of accusations and counter-accusations are certain historical factors which have continued to compound the many problems faced by this chaotic metropolis. And these factors are not 10, 20 or even 30 years old. Some of them are even older than Pakistan itself!

Irwin Isenberg in his 1974 book The Nations of the Indian Subcontinent wrote that on the eve of Pakistan’s creation in 1947, Karachi was considered to be the cleanest city in South Asia. However, by the 1940s the city’s infrastructure — built by the British from the early 1900s onward — was already stressed. When the city became a booming port city during and after the First World War, it began to receive a large number of migrants from all over India.

The city thus faced its first major incident of urban flooding during the monsoon rains of 1944, when the drainage and sewerage systems were choked. Then in 1947, the city was thronged by 600,000 Muslim refugees who came here from various parts of India.

The city’s infrastructural problems might one day make it unlivable

By 1951, the migrant-refugee population increased to 815,000. Karachi was ill-prepared to accommodate such a huge and sudden influx of people. The government faced major infrastructural challenges because there was shortage of housing and jobs, inadequate sewage and drainage systems, water, electricity and transport facilities.

The government formed the Karachi Improvement Trust (KIT) which developed colonies on 2,500 acres of land. Though this managed to disperse the displaced people from squatting in the strained centre of the city, by the late 1950s many such colonies had turned into shanty towns.

Architect Arif Hasan, in his essay in the book edited by Hamida Khuhro and Anwar Mooraj Karachi: Megacity of Our Times, wrote that the government also utilised the services of Merz Rendall Vatten (MRV), a Swedish development firm. The firm drew up the ‘MRV Plan’ to launch housing, transport and other infrastructural projects.

The unstable nature of the country’s politics in the 1950s disrupted the implementation of the MRV plan. Things got worse for the city when Ayub Khan's regime (1958-69) introduced large-scale industrialisation. Hasan wrote that Ayub’s rampant industrialisation projects were concentrated in Karachi. Even though they created numerous new white-and blue-collar jobs, they attracted a new wave of migration to the city — this time from Punjab and the province formerly known as NWFP (present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

This created resentment among locals who believed that their jobs were being taken over by the new migrants. In 1965, Karachi witnessed its first ethnic riot. To address the city’s growing infrastructural issues, the Ayub regime hired a Greek firm to draw up a ‘resettlement plan’ in order to develop cheap housing for 119,000 homeless families and shift the shanty towns away from the city centre.

But only 10,000 residential units were built before the plan was shelved in 1965 (for lack of funds). As a result, squatter settlements started developing, led by informal ‘middle-men’ and shady developers — and thus was born the city’s infamous ‘land mafia'. Most of these settlements were built along drainage and sewage outlets. In 1967, Karachi was hit by severe urban flooding during monsoon rains.

The government could not keep up with the city’s growing demand for public transport, either. The task slipped into the hands of private operators who were mainly Pakhtun migrants.

Overwhelmed by the city’s population explosion and the continuing degradation of its infrastructure, the government asked the United Nations (UN) to help it overcome Karachi’s compounding problems. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) agreed and a new ‘master plan’ known as the ‘Karachi Master Plan’ was drawn up. The plan envisaged the development of 40,000 residential units per year, between 1968 and 1985.

In the early 1950s, the MRV Plan had predicted the city’s population to reach three million by the year 2001, but Hasan points out that the city’s population grew so rapidly that it reached this figure by 1972!

During Z.A. Bhutto's regime (1971-77), Karachi began receiving migrants from the interior of Sindh and Biharis from what was then called East Pakistan. In 1972, the city experienced its second bout of ethnic riots.

In his biography of Z.A. Bhutto, Stanley Wolpert wrote that lamenting the degradation of the city in a letter written to his Sindh CM in 1973, Bhutto sounded almost helpless.

To bring in money to the city, the Bhutto regime began a project to attract moneyed tourists from rich Arab countries and Europe. For this the government began planning the construction of casinos and more five-star hotels. But this plan too was shelved when the regime fell in 1977.

Hasan writes that even though Karachi had become a socially liberal melting pot of various ethnic cultures as well as the entertainment capital of the country between the 1950s and the late 1970s, by 1977, over two million people were living in its shanty towns. In 1976, Karachi witnessed its third major episode of urban flooding.

In the 1980s, the city received yet another migrant influx, this time in the form of thousands of Afghans from war-torn Afghanistan. Many of them brought with them guns and drugs. D.K. Bergen in her book War and Drugs points out that there was just one case of heroin addiction reported in Karachi in 1979. By 1985, though, the city had the second-largest population of heroin addicts in the world. Crime, too, shot up manifold and so did the frequency of ethnic clashes.

As the city’s infrastructural problems continued to compound, the hold of the so-called land, transport and drug mafias tightened and they were facilitated by corrupt police and bureaucracy. By 1987, 3.4 million people were living in crime-infested shanty towns. Finally, in the 1990s, the city’s infrastructure completely collapsed.

The city’s sprawling, congested and chaotic edifice became a much-favoured hiding and hunting ground for all kinds of undesirables — drug peddlers, land grabbers, criminal gangs — and this resulted in the eruption of ethnic violence. By the 2000s, extremist outfits, too, began setting up shop here to exploit and enjoy the fruits of chaos.

There are now so many criss-crossing political, economic and ethnic interests clashing against each other in the city that it has become next to impossible to solve its many problems through a consensus. A report published on May 4, 1988 in the Chicago Tribune warned that Karachi is bound to one day become ‘unlivable.’ This year the city was positioned at number six in the list of “10 worst cities of the world” by The Economist's Intelligence Unit.

According to a July 6, 2017 study by the World Bank, Karachi would need up to 10 billion dollars of capital investment to fully address its ongoing infrastructural problems. Without this it will soon become entirely ungovernable.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 10th, 2017



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