Updated 06 Sep 2020


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Karachi is Pakistan’s largest and the world’s sixth largest city. It is the provincial capital of Sindh province. Known as Pakistan’s ‘economic hub’, it generates up to 65 percent of the national revenue. It is also Pakistan’s major port city.

It is a fact that only during disasters such as the recent urban flooding, that most Karachiites realise that there is not one political or administrative authority in Karachi, but many. The city government, the Sindh government, the federal government and various local administrative bodies.

The administrative structure of this mammoth metropolis is thus complex and multi-layered, with some absurd overlaps. Karachi is also Pakistan’s most ethnically diverse city. Even though this diversity continues to sustain the city’s metropolitan status, and its rather pragmatically formulated pluralistic culture, it can also make the city’s many political and administrative stakeholders pull their individual weights in opposite directions. This makes it almost impossible for them to strike any workable consensus.

Read: Now is the time to change how Karachi is governed

This is reflective of the city’s segregated ethnic construct. Ever since the 1980s, various ethnic communities have ghettoised themselves in their areas of numerical influence. During times of ethnic tussles over the city’s resources, ethnic groups prefer to remain in their areas. However, since economic survival demands venturing out and interacting with other groups, bridges do emerge and communities return to interact with each other. No matter how pragmatic the nature of this interaction, it often results in the creation of an overarching culture of interaction and inclusiveness, only to recede once again during ethnic commotions.

Common economic interests are what drives this interaction, until one community begins to suspect the motives of the other. The suspected motive, is usually about usurping more than one’s unsaid share of economic resources.

Karachi’s problems of infrastructure can be traced back to its very sudden transformation into a major city and to the lack of attention paid to its planning and administration

But there are no such bridges between those who administer this city. Communication gaps remain and in case of emergencies, these cause uncoordinated, chaotic responses and futile finger-pointing. But then, Karachi by nature responds negatively to the idea of any one group dominating it, even if a group or community manages to bag the most seats in elections here. The city’s ethnic diversity works in a curious manner, generating an always-squabbling pluralism.

Most large cities, even in developed countries, face a plethora of administrative and infrastructural problems. But lessons and data from their historical evolution aids them to adjust and resolve these problems. But unlike most cities, Karachi did not evolve as a city, as such, but it imploded into existence. Twice.

The region that became Karachi has an obscure history till the 18th century. According to ancient Greek texts, the Greek commander Nearchus, who accompanied Alexander during his invasion of India in 326 BCE, called the region ‘Krokola’, a place by the sea inhabited by a tiny community of ‘primitive people.’

Sixteenth century Turks and Arabs called it ‘Kaurashi.’ But it does not appear on any map until Sindh’s Kalhora dynasty annexed it in 1759. It was ‘gifted’ to Balochistan’s Khan of Kalat in 1767 before being annexed by Sindh’s Talpur dynasty in 1794. By all accounts, it was still a small fishing town with less than 10,000 inhabitants, mostly Sindhi and Baloch, who called it ‘Kolachi.’

The British invaded and occupied Karachi in the early 1840s and then annexed the rest of Sindh. They made Karachi and Sindh parts of the ‘Bombay Presidency.’ The British rapidly developed Karachi’s port and infrastructure. This led to migrations from the rest of India. From a population of less than 15,000 during the time of the British take-over, it witnessed a manifold increase. By 1856, the population had jumped to 57,000.

Suddenly, within a matter of a few decades, the rugged fishing town of 15,000 people, became a rapidly emerging port city. By the 1930s, the British were calling Karachi the ‘Queen of the East’ and praising its enterprising, tolerant and diverse character. The city’s sudden urban emergence and swift increase in population did create issues, but the British introduced an effective model of city governance that continued to upgrade Karachi’s infrastructure. The city governance system eschewed politics based on religion or ethnicity and succeeded in managing the city’s resources in such a manner that major and minor stakeholders felt included.

In 1936, Sindh was restored as a province and Karachi was made its capital. According to the 1941 census report, Karachi’s population then was 435,887. Over 50 percent were Hindus, 40 percent were Muslims, while the rest comprised Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews. Over 65 percent spoke Sindhi.

In 1947, the city imploded into another form of existence, this time as a capital of Pakistan. Karachi’s demographics witnessed a dramatic shift when millions of Urdu-speaking Muslims (‘Mohajir’) migrated to Karachi. There was a 161 percent increase in Karachi’s population. The infrastructure left behind by the British could not accommodate the massive increase, and began to crumble.

In 1958, the Ayub Khan government chalked out a resettlement plan which was to be accommodated by an ambitious industrialisation project. New low-income housing schemes emerged, but factories and businesses were slow to reach these areas and there was lack of transport. Pashtun and Punjabi migrants also began to arrive in droves. Irregular settlements (katchi abadis) and slums began to sprout. Failure to effectively adjust the city’s infrastructure to accommodate these changes led to ad hoc arrangements. In 1965, Karachi witnessed its first ethnic riot.

In 1970, Karachi once again became the capital of Sindh. In 1972 it witnessed another round of ethnic riots. Unable to check the influx of more inner-Pakistan migrations to Karachi, and stall the mushrooming of katchi abadis, the Z.A. Bhutto government, in 1975, devised a ‘Karachi Master Plan’ to upgrade the city’s failing infrastructure. It planned to build new road networks and housing; upgrade katchi abadis; and construct transport terminals, warehousing, mass transit, etc. But the plan was not implemented after the 1977 coup of Gen Zia-ul-Haq. This resulted in the growth of the informal sector and mafias that emerged to serve a growing population of a failing city. Across the 1980s and 1990s, Karachi witnessed brutal ethnic and sectarian violence. Ethnic communities and mafias fought running battles to gain access to the city’s dwindling resources.

In 2000, the Musharraf dictatorship launched a Karachi Development Programme. But as the city planner and sociologist Arif Hasan has often lamented, this plan departed from the ‘social democratic’ tenor of the previous (unimplemented) plans and adopted ‘neo-liberal’ ideas. This meant putting more money in extravagant building schemes and less on the city’s degrading infrastructure. For example, according to Hasan, whereas in the past katchi abadis became the source of clogging drainage nullahs with sewage (a practice that was then also adopted by the local administrative bodies), in the last two decades, the same is being done by high income areas.

Construction of residential areas, both high and low income, on natural drainage routes also continues. Due to clogged drainage nullahs, these natural routes now go through residential areas, streets and roads, flooding them over and again. Rain waters have always used these routes for thousands of years, but builders fail to take this into account by building on them without any adequate drainage facilities.

Ancient Greek texts quote Nearchus as saying ‘a great storm was raging’ when his army reached Krokola, and the storm waters were emptying into the sea. Of course, at the time, there was nothing coming in the way of these waters.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 6th, 2020