Hidden within the narrow lanes of Moosa Colony, in UC-35 of North Nazimabad, Karachi, one can find the material ruins of the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR), faintly discernible in the sand-covered tracks and a few isolated posts bearing numeric markings.
The KCR’s golden era of the 1960s can be traced in Moosa Colony’s residents’ accounts; an era when the KCR represented a vanguard of modernity and embodied high aspirations for Karachi's landscape of mobility.
While operational inefficiencies eventually led to the KCR’s demise in the 1990s, with passenger traffic coming to a halt in December 1999, a plan is currently underway to revive it.
Although the KCR’s rebirth was considered as early as 2008, the project is now being fast-tracked under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and is aligned with the present government’s aspirations of building a Naya Pakistan; a collective nostalgia for the nation, with the KCR providing a renewed hope for a different future.
Planners estimate that over half a million passengers will be facilitated daily by the revival of the project, but this step to resuscitate the KCR is not only an attempt to modernise the city’s current transportation network, it also seeks to commemorate visions of Karachi as a ‘world class’ city.
While the KCR’s revival is being celebrated in public discourse for the broader good of the city and is itself associated with ‘progress’, the 28 informal settlements with nearly 45,000 people who have lived for 20 or more years along the KCR route, hold an ambiguous position in Karachi's consciousness.
Between the promise of modernisation set out in the revival plan and a set of complex circumstances resulting from the city’s demographic, economic and social transformations of the past two decades, the KCR’s architectural and infrastructural ruins exist alongside the residents’ material and social aspirations for upward mobility and new futures that pivot ultimately on the question of land ownership.
Land, durability and home
The process of land acquisition at the time of Partition was considerably different from what it is today. The influx of over 600,000 refugees in Karachi in 1947 meant that many had to find shelter on a self-help basis as the new government had failed to respond to the rising housing demand.
While the city limits were restricted to Jamshed Quarters, the resettling populations demarcated their territory in the land that was available to the north and west of Karachi.
Today, the third generations of those refugees reside in the neighbourhoods of the KCR along with migrants from other parts of the country, and they collectively claim ownership of the land in the 28 settlements.
Pakistan’s urban policy: Turning cities into slums
These ethnically heterogeneous neighbourhoods have expanded considerably over the past 50 years, and that too on land that has become a matter of dispute between them and Pakistan Railways.
Over the past several decades, the architectural language of the houses situated along the KCR route has evolved considerably.
Initially, the houses existed as temporary shelters, with tents and huts made of fabric or canvas for enclosure, supported by bamboo posts or timber with roofs of thatch and straw. These raw materials were readily available at that time to enable auto-construction.
Gradually, the homeowners shifted towards using hard materials such as concrete for construction to ensure durability and permanence.
This was not merely a step towards achieving a ‘modern’ appearance or living standards, but also an assurance of right of possession — to reduce the risk of expulsion, or at least to make the task considerably harder for local authorities if eviction became inevitable.
The readily available cement-concrete block, metal sheet roofs for single-storey construction and T-girder roof with concrete floor for vertical construction, are materials that have literally sutured in place the identity and aspirations of the KCR neighbourhoods.
Hence, the development process of these neighbourhoods cannot be regarded as simply spontaneous. Rather, it has been a conscious effort that has materialised through purposeful changes to the built environment.
The term katchi abadi is used frequently to describe the KCR neighbourhoods and this is misleading in the current context.
The neighbourhoods or abadis are as pakka and permanent as any other neighbourhood in Karachi and the residents’ lives are deeply integrated with the built environment.
For the residents whose houses are situated in proximity to the tracks, they have become accustomed to the traffic of cargo trains, observing the movements as an inseparable part of the neighbourhood’s physical landscape.
Any activity that takes place on the tracks slowly disperses as the vibrations of the steel beams are sensed for an oncoming train; a signal that everyone is familiar with. For the children, the tracks are a ‘dangerous’ playground given the absence of any other open space.
Certainly, the KCR neighbourhoods are embedded in a complex cultural habitat with livelihood patterns based on historically situated social networks and capital, something that is indispensable to the residents’ way of life.
Whether it is active street life or community spirit, the concept of shared public space for work, domesticity and leisure is best understood in these neighbourhoods as exemplifying the everyday life of the city’s urban majority.
The residents’ familiarity and the relatable human scale of these neighbourhoods also enable new migrants — mostly from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — to find home in an otherwise rapidly expanding and unfamiliar city.
I came across several migrants living in Gharibabad Colony who often stated: "It feels like I am back in my village," and "I forget we are in the middle of the city."
Even though a considerable number of working-class and low-income people live in the KCR neighbourhoods, through their struggles they have managed to invest in their children’s education to ensure a better future.
There is an emergent generation of young adults who are receiving professional medical and chartered accountant degrees, with aspirations to find jobs in the private sector.
In my conversations with young men and women, they expressed a desire for upward mobility: better material conditions, bigger houses and improved aesthetics.
All these elements are visible in the evolving architectural patterns of these neighbourhoods, but a barrier to upward mobility is the fear of uncertainty; the impending eviction due to the KCR revival plan that feeds a sense of aversion to further investment in houses that will be demolished soon.
For the residents whose houses are situated along the length of the track that is meant to connect the KCR with the rest of the city — referred to as the loop line — the daily commute over the buried tracks is a reminder of the past and an uncertain future.
For them, what appears as progress for the city and the nation, is in fact a catastrophe, an impending threat of eviction and long-term displacement.
In response to an uncertain future due to threat of eviction, residents have devised strategies to mitigate risk. In some houses, a segment located at the front of the concrete dwelling is constructed from materials that can be easily taken apart.
Residents explained that if there is an eviction operation, this type of construction material will ensure minimal damage to the owner. This is found primarily in those homes that are situated on the overlapping boundaries of private and public land ownership.
To secure political support, certain neighbourhoods have even been named after patrons from political parties. A case in point is Umar Colony 1 that is named after the son of a prominent Pakistan People's Party politician. Another is Moosa Colony, named after General Musa, who served as commander-in-chief during Ayub Khan’s era.
These toponyms or place names confer a sense of identity and chronicle the history of the diverse KCR settlements, many that will soon be pushed off Karachi’s map.
Development’s violent history
Pakistan's history of development and urban planning is stained by tragic stories of internal displacement, such as after the construction of the Mangla and Tarbela Dams and even the planning of the capital city of Islamabad.
In addition to these and numerous other infrastructure projects, the human rights of ordinary citizens have been continually violated with respect to planning for just compensation and resettlement.
Evictions and displacements not only marginalise poor populations but also further impoverish them.
In Pakistan, the resettlement practices of such projects have seldom seen successful outcomes, with assistance limited to cash compensation only for registered properties and a complete disregard for the irreversible effects on the displaced community.
The consequences for those who are evicted and displaced are extensive; loss of home, livelihood and a sense of belonging; this holds true for the neighbourhoods demolished during the construction of the Lyari Expressway.
The residents were resettled on Karachi’s periphery and onto an unfamiliar terrain where they have had to rebuild lives. The story for the affectees of the KCR may prove to be no different.
KCR and its discontents
In the Global South, violent planning regimes and infrastructure development projects have almost always contributed incalculably to the process of overwriting identities of marginalised communities, consequently obliterating their history together with all traces of their legitimacy and belonging, literally pushing them off the map of the city.
The loss for them is not merely financial; the individual is left socially and institutionally bankrupt and marginalised.
While the benefits of a project like the KCR may be deemed as one that facilitates a much larger population, and resolves the ever-present transport problems of Karachi, the destruction of everyday lives of those affected by its construction will be colossal.
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