THE political economy of a space is shaped by the interrelationships of its inhabiting stakeholders cutting across social, economic, cultural and religious-ethnic profiles. The nature of these relationships can determine the constructs of community bonding or divisions.
I had the opportunity of working with the Hazara community, over a period of six months in Karachi’s Hazara Goth a couple of years ago, when I supervised an academic research project in ‘community development’ in which my students from Habib University were participating. We wanted to understand the livability challenges of the community — how they prioritised their challenges, engaged with service providers and developed coping mechanisms. It was a learning experience in trying to unravel the multiple layers of inequity that are a defining feature of Karachi’s urban fabric with grave implications for increased poverty and social exclusion. With the Hazara community already in the low-income bracket, their vulnerability to ‘social injustice’ is compounded by their religious and ethnic identity.
Nestled between Safari Park and Aladdin Park, the community started settling in Hazara Goth to escape sectarian killings in Quetta around 20 to 25 years back — a process that continues to this day. They are concentrated in Hussain Hazara Goth and Mughal Hazara Goth. These goths were initially illegal settlements and were regularised in 1987 by the KMC. They now share the space with communities of other ethnicities including Sindhi, Seraiki and Pakhtun.
The civic problems — running sewage restricting the main access to the road, uncollected garbage, substandard health and educational facilities — here are not unique to the Hazaras. However, unique to them are the restraints that bind them because of their religious identity, severely limiting their capacity to improve livability standards. The Hazara community has a disconnect with the other ethnic communities of Hazara Goth; resultantly, they find themselves outside the loop of any collective community effort to engage with service providers for resolving area issues.
The levels of isolation are alarming.
This communal isolation, aggravated by their lack of political clout, results in their ‘parcels’ of land being neglected even more. Effective mobilisation is also constrained by their relative inability to blend and connect with those outside their ‘Hazara’ identity — both within and outside the confines of Hazara Goth.
The government-run health and educational facilities are ill-served as qualified staff and private practitioners outside the Hazara ethnicity are reluctant to practise in an area identified as a security hotspot. Women have shared disturbing incidents of severe pregnancy-related emergencies, with lives lost due to lack of adequate healthcare and an inability to mobilise outside the community space. Worst affected are the older residents who cannot speak any other language but their local Dari. Having found ‘refuge’ to escape sectarian oppression, they are afraid and reluctant to step outside the community confines.
A lot of time was spent in engaging with the area’s youth and women. The youth are disillusioned about their future prospects as they feel trapped and insecure and unable to uplift themselves academically or acquire much-needed livelihood skill sets. Hazara community members are often even denied CNIC registration if they are recent settlers and are not able to provide required information going beyond a certain date. As such, for a large proportion of the community, opportunities to find gainful employment or set up private businesses are seriously compromised. Consequently, the community draws inwards.
Survey findings revealed that the majority looked to their religious leaders for solutions to day-to-day challenges, with the area imambargah becoming the centre of dispute resolution and problem solving. None of the respondents indicated any hope of the government coming to their rescue. The levels of isolation are alarming, with 25 per cent of respondents saying that they prefer to remain indoors primarily because of safety and security concerns. Almost 40pc said they visited families outside their home, while only 10pc indicated having visited places like city malls and markets.
We often sat with the community members, listening to their hopes and desires, sorrows and despair. As they related stories and sung songs, and as we ate their home-cooked food, it was lamented that the community’s strife in Karachi is reflective of a much larger, debilitating causal factor of urban disenfranchisement. Social and political exclusion based on religious and ethnic identity is complicating any attempt to make Karachi an inclusive, integrated city. This is sad and unfortunate. Other cities blessed with diverse languages, cultures, ethnicities and religious identities celebrate this mixture and leverage it to make their spaces more inclusive, resilient and exciting.
The writer is an urban planner and CEO, Urban Collaborative.
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2021