UNDERSTANDING THE TRUTH BEHIND THE FACADE

Published February 14, 2021
Bahria Town Karachi’s outline superimposed on satellite imagery of New York to give a sense of the spatial scale of the project. A land use change over such a large area is not a part of any official plan | Mapping by Rida Khan (Advocacy planner, urban designer)
Bahria Town Karachi’s outline superimposed on satellite imagery of New York to give a sense of the spatial scale of the project. A land use change over such a large area is not a part of any official plan | Mapping by Rida Khan (Advocacy planner, urban designer)

Every day in the print and electronic media there is news about the terrible physical, social and municipal governance issues of Karachi and how they affect the lives of ordinary citizens. These conditions are blamed on a variety of factors, most of them political in nature. It is argued that if a proper local government system is implemented, these problems will be overcome.

However, the fact is that, behind the facade of laws, successful projects, international loans, and technical and managerial capacity of governance-related issues, lie a number of other factors that this article aims to identify, and which simply an empowered local government will not be able to overcome by itself.

1. What planning did not provide, Karachi and its citizens created/acquired for themselves.

Karachi was a city of 450,000 at the time of Independence. Between 1947 and the first post-Independence census in 1951, its population increased by 920,000. 600,000 of this increase consisted of refugees from India. They had to be housed and, therefore, housing became the principal concern of bureaucrats and planners. An even larger increase took place between the 1951 and 1961 censuses. Planning for housing, as a result, became a culture, and also a source of informal earnings for government officials involved in the land and housing sector.

However, cities require other facilities as well, and those existed in pre-Independence Karachi but could not cope with the new pressures of population, trade and commerce. Karachi’s planners, because of their preoccupation with housing, did not cater to these new requirements. As a result, warehousing developed in the Old City, destroying much of its built heritage; bus terminals, both intra- and inter-city, developed wherever space was available; economic activity, including small-scale industries, developed in residential areas; and markets developed on pavements and in parks and playgrounds.

High-rise buildings have to be a part of a larger urban design exercise | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
High-rise buildings have to be a part of a larger urban design exercise | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Karachi’s port activity in 1951 was 2.8 million tonnes per year and 95 percent of it was managed by railways. Today, it is 41.8 million tonnes and almost all of it is by road. The trucking and storage facilities for this increase has also been catered to in an ad hoc manner, wherever space was available. As a result of this, even today, the traffic generated by the port cannot be managed.

This whole world of informality cannot be demolished, despite the fact that there are Supreme Court judgments ordering such demolitions. If they are demolished, then the city cannot function in socio-economic terms. Add to this the fact that the majority of the population of Karachi (62 percent) lives in katchi abadis [informal settlements].

What is required, therefore, is a mapping of that which exists and keeping that which is for the benefit of the city and is not an environmental or social liability.

Are the multifarious problems of the megacity of Karachi simply because of the lack of a functioning local government system? The reality may be a little more complex than that. Architect and urban planner Arif Hasan explains what he has learnt about urban planning over 50 years, in his words, “through participation, voyeurism, disillusionment, love, hope and affection”

2. Karachi has a formal land use plan which is not followed. Instead, an informal speculation promoting plan exists and is continually being implemented.

The Karachi Strategic Development Plan (KSDP) 2020, and all the other previous plans of Karachi, have land use plans which have never been followed, and to which politicians, bureaucrats and the judiciary constantly refer to to justify their planning-related projects.

But the reality is that there is an informal land use plan which is constantly being updated. This is the product of a powerful nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and developers. Under it, all land which has the potential for real estate development is acquired by the nexus to extract maximum value out of it. As a result, building by-laws and zoning regulations are violated to increase constructed square footage, major corridors of the city are commercialised, thus increasing congestion, amenity plots are constructed over and — through ingenious methods — the area-plot ratio is increased. Much to the anguish of residents, playgrounds are turned into parks, taking away space for sports activities for children and young persons, forcing them to play on the lanes and streets of the city.

Unplanned low-income high-rises | Fareena Chanda
Unplanned low-income high-rises | Fareena Chanda

To legalise unplanned densification, a law “Sindh High Density Board Act” has been instituted. The Board consists of nine members who are all bureaucrats and politicians, who can declare any plot of land or area as high density and increase its floor to area ratio. As a result, there are over 120 buildings of 20-plus floors under construction in the city. One has nothing against high-rise buildings, but they have to be a part of a larger urban design exercise, so as to prevent further population and vehicular congestion.

3. Karachi’s land use plan has severe environmental repercussions.

The absence of managing lands on the basis of environmental and social considerations has devastated the Karachi region. Over 2,800 goths [villages] along with their agricultural and pastoral lands have been swallowed up by developer-planned housing schemes. Their original owners have been made homeless and destitute. For example, the area of Bahria Town Karachi is larger than Manhattan. A land use change over such a large area is not a part of any official plan. Also, how was this huge land assembly achieved, considering the fact that it must have involved dealing with hundreds, if not thousands, of original owners?

The story that emerges is one of coercion and murder, with support from officialdom, of those who opposed the surrendering of their properties. Those responsible for this have not been brought to justice in spite of overwhelming evidence against them. It is pertinent to mention here that, in 1985, 70 percent of Karachi’s vegetable and fruit requirements came from its rural areas. In 2013, this was reduced to 10 percent and Karachi lost a huge and undefined area of tree cover and green areas.

This process of ad hoc land use changes continues. For example, the government wishes to develop Bundal Island (which lies on the estuary of the Korangi Creek and has 3,500 hectares of mangroves on it) as a city, through an investment of 50 billion rupees. No environmental impact assessment for its development has been done so far. Also, the nature of development proposed for it will only be affordable by the elite, for whom there is already a surplus of housing and recreational sites. At present, the site is a breeding ground for fish life and related activity for fishing communities. A major heritage site, in the form of the tomb of Yusuf Shah, the patron saint of fishing communities, is located on the island and attracts thousands of fishermen at the urs of the saint. Experts feel that, given climate change and Covid, this development will be an environmental disaster and a major loss of livelihood and displacement of poor fishing households.

The mangrove forests on the island are an asset to the city. The beauty of their flora and fauna, and the lives of the people associated with them, has been captured by the work of architect Tariq Kaiser. In today’s world, the destruction of such an important asset would be unacceptable.

Similarly, the Malir Expressway Project, which is currently being constructed, has had no environmental impact assessment done for it. In spite of that, demolitions of low-income settlements coming in its way are being carried out.

The government has allocated a number of sites on lease for “mining” purposes in the Karachi Division. These sites are supposed to supply crushed stone and sand for construction purposes to the building industry. But they are not being used for the purposes for which they were created.

Meanwhile, an estimated 60 billion cubic feet of sand and gravel have been lifted from Karachi’s seasonal rivers and streams, for building construction purposes, making the recharging of aquifers of these rivers and streams almost impossible. This has adversely affected agriculture, wherever it has survived, and access to potable water for poor communities. The yearly turnover from this illegal business is estimated at 50 billion US dollars.

It is obvious from what has been said above that Karachi, like all other cities, needs a regional plan to protect its ecology from being destroyed. However, very little is left of the “region”. Between Karachi and Hyderabad it has been taken over by developers, the Defence establishment and large-scale energy projects.

The same is true of the Karachi-Winder Corridor and the Karachi-Gharo Corridor. However, the coast can still be protected from environmentally inappropriate construction, which is currently taking place, and much of the foothills of the Kirthar Range are still free from development and need to be protected.

Motorbike ownership has increased from 400,000 in 2004 to 3,000,000 in 2020 | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Motorbike ownership has increased from 400,000 in 2004 to 3,000,000 in 2020 | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

4. The courts may have implemented the law, but their decisions have promoted inequity and injustice.

In the case of Karachi, courts have intervened in development matters and ordered the demolition of all construction that has taken place which is in violation of the Karachi Master Plan of 40 years ago. As a result, 9,000 hawkers have been displaced and 6,000 shops have been demolished because of which, only in the Empress Market area, the affectees suffered an economic loss of 1.5 billion rupees in one year.

It is important to note here that the victims of these orders have overwhelmingly been the poor. Violations carried out by the Sindh Government and powerful commercial interests have not been touched. Additionally, over 1,200 houses on the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) right-of-way were demolished in 2018. The Supreme Court had ordered that they should be rehabilitated within one year. However, three years have elapsed and no action has been taken against anyone for not rehabilitating them.

Meanwhile, the prime minister’s illegally constructed house in Bani Gala has been regularised against a payment of 12 lakh rupees, and so has the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Islamabad. So why could the Supreme Court not have ordered the regularisation of the small businesses and katchi abadi homes in Karachi?

The decisions of the Supreme Court on these issues have promoted unbearable inequity. The residents of the new katchi abadis, which have become high-rise, now live in constant fear of being demolished. Areas from which hawkers have been removed are in the process of being gentrified and, as a result, the poor are finding it difficult to continue occupying spaces which, in some cases, they have occupied for generations.

After the last monsoon, it was decided by the local administration to remove over 3,000 homes and 2,000 commercial units from around the nalas of Karachi. Demolition was commenced at Gujjar Nala by giving a less-than-24-hour notice to people to remove their homes and belongings.

Similarly, along Manzoor Colony Nala, 2,000 houses were planned to be demolished. A study by a community-appointed consultant and another by the NED University identified that no more than 57 houses needed to be removed and that the real problem lay with the estuary of the nala, which had been encroached upon by DHA for creating plots. The drain constructed by DHA as an alternative could not cater to the volume of water that the rains generated, resulting in the flooding of 34 settlements connected through a system of natural drains to the Defence Housing Society outfall.

Community mapping has identified many such problems created by elite societies in other nalas as well, which are seldom mentioned in the print or electronic media. No suo motu action has been taken by the courts on these gross violations of housing rights, nor has the fact that Pakistan is a signatory to the UN’s Istanbul Declaration, which provides protection against involuntary eviction.

5. An absence of micro-level understanding promotes inappropriate development.

Within planners, there is little understanding of micro-level conditions, but such understanding does exist in those agencies and persons who maintain and manage utilities. However, they are not consulted when master or sector level plans are developed. Most consultants carry out impersonal surveys and interviews and visit the settlements as ‘development tourists’.

This also holds true for international consultants working under programmes financed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs). An example of this is the Asian Development Bank-funded 1990 Karachi Urban Development Programme. The sewage system carried out by KWSB and the local government in Baldia cost seven billion US dollars. It served 5,000 households and the investment per household was 80,000 rupees. The same programme, with the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) collaboration in Orangi, cost the government only 4.5 million US dollars, served 100,000 households, and government investment per household was four US dollars. There are many other such examples.

Most NGOs understand micro-level issues and also cater to them. However, NGO projects remain islands in a sea of inappropriate development. OPP, for example, has perhaps the largest outreach in Pakistan, apart from the National Rural Support Programme. However, it is still a drop in the ocean of need. Although policies have been legislated to replicate its models, this has not happened because the organisational culture of government agencies conflicts with OPP policy recommendations and procedures.

6. IFI-funded projects do not bring development, participation, build capacity or transform cultures.

For most IFI-funded projects, a special office in a posh area is created and a highly paid staff of international and national consultants is appointed. Government officials with special perks and privileges are inducted into the project office. Once the time period of the project lapses and the funding stops, the office closes down and things return to what they were before. Consultants go looking for other work, the government officials return to their parent departments and the expensive pool of cars purchased for the office are distributed to different departments.

Technical assistance is an important ingredient for most projects. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is one of the largest funders of development in Pakistan, has allocated 33 billion US dollars in loans to Pakistan since 1966, along with 190.7 million US dollars in technical assistance, which entails the building of capacity and capability of local institutions and their managers.

However, in spite of the sums spent on it, such capacity and capability has declined. Much of this technical assistance consists of workshops held in posh hotels and visits to other countries to take a look at ‘successful projects’. This introduces a culture of affluence, which conflicts with the existing culture of state institutions and creates serious divisions in them.

The projects designed by IFIs are often disasters, such as the Left Bank Outfall Drain and the Right Bank Outfall Drain. They are also many times more expensive, compared to work done through local finances and organisations. The ADB-funded Orangi Waste Water Management Project was to cost 100 million US dollars. It was reworked by the Orangi Pilot Project to 26 million US dollars and, with local contractors rates, it increased to 38 million US dollars. On the basis of these figures, the Governor of Sindh cancelled the loan in 1999.

Community participation is built into these projects and consists of surveys, discussions and involvement of the area elites for project promotion in the area, and providing logistic support to the consultant’s team. But the local communities in almost all cases are silent spectators.

Due to a severe lack of playgrounds in the city, children and young persons are forced to play on the streets | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Due to a severe lack of playgrounds in the city, children and young persons are forced to play on the streets | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

7. Neoliberalism has replaced planning with projects.

Neoliberalism has promoted the concept of the ‘world class city’ which we have adopted for the KSDP 2020. This means a city of malls, as opposed to local markets; high-rise living, as opposed to low-income houses; cineplexes, as opposed to cinemas; branding the city for an event or product; gentrifying it for tourism; and privatising development through build, operate and transfer projects, and for development and municipal functions.

Although many bureaucrats may not know the philosophy behind neoliberalism, they practise it through neoliberal vocabulary, such as ‘it is not the business of the state to do business’ and ‘private-public partnership’ and ‘DFI [Direct Foreign Investment]’.

This thinking has led to the gentrification of potentially elite areas in many cities of the world, including Karachi, resulting in the displacement of the poor from elite and upper-middle income areas. Direct foreign investment also means that projects have replaced planning, so finances available determine the nature of the project. One builds that for which funds are available from whatever source.

Many such projects, because of their lack of relationship to an overall plan are environmentally and socially disastrous, such as the destruction of the mangrove swamps for the construction of the DHA Golf Club and the KPT housing scheme in the Chinna Creek backwaters. Both could have been elsewhere. It is necessary that, in the absence of planning, a criteria for judging projects on their social and ecological criteria be put in place.

8. The culture of politicians and of government departments determines the nature of projects and their implementation processes.

The type of projects that are planned and implemented in Pakistan are determined by politicians and bureaucrats, and so is the appointment of project planners, often on the basis of nepotism. For the location of schools, there are no school-mapping exercises, and the locations of health facilities are determined not on the basis of need, but on a political basis by ministers, MNAs and MPAs, who are provided funds for development of schemes of their own choosing in their constituencies. Thus, a whole world of uncoordinated development is created which, in turn, creates chaos in the delivery of services.

In addition, there is a strong class aspect to development issues. For instance, the road to the trucking station on the way to Hawkesbay Beach has been in shambles for the last nine years. In economic and time terms, this is a burden on the trucking community, which is a major source of revenue for the government. This is also the road to Hawkesbay where the elite have beach huts. Instead of fixing the road, there is a proposal for building a flyover so that people can get to Hawksebay Beach without having to pass through the trucking station.

Similarly, while large-scale middle and elite housing is being promoted, there are no social housing schemes for the low-income groups.

In government organisations, decisions are taken at the top, without consultation of mid-level staff, who eventually design and manage the project — and the lower-level staff, who maintain and operate it. Thus, the mid-level and lower-level staff has no ownership over the project.

If it is an internationally funded project, then its monitoring is done by consultants who have not been part of the project and, hence, this monitoring is reduced to a policing exercise, which demoralises the staff. When things go wrong, no reorientation of staff takes place. But the more serious issue here is that, no voicing of dissent against senior staff decisions is permitted and, hence, the possibility of improvement is negated.

These problems have manifested themselves in a big way in transport and traffic management issues. The signal-free roads and the major tertiary roads are designed entirely for automobiles. This has resulted in extreme inconvenience for the pedestrian population and has led to a major increase in the number of fatal accidents.

The Bus Rapid Transits (BRTs) that have been planned for Karachi also do not relate to any land use plans, heritage locations and low-income settlements. They have simply been placed on the existing corridors of maximum movement. Those that are elevated cannot have other routes fed into them, thus making it difficult for low-income areas to link up with them.

Only seven percent of Karachi’s commuting public will be able to use the BRTs once all of them are completed. Some experts believe that the purchase of buses, instead of investment in BRTs would have served a far larger population with far greater flexibility for future growth and subservience to land use requirements.

While huge investments (200 billion rupees) are likely to be made on five Karachi BRTs and the KCR, the number of buses on which the vast majority of the poor rely have reduced from 22,315 in 2011 to 6,176 in 2020. As a result, Karachiites have been forced to purchase motorbikes to overcome their transport problems, increasing motorbike ownership from 400,000 in 2004 to 3,000,000 in 2020.

9. Karachi is a city of young people.

The most important group in this city is between the ages of 15 and 24. They are the present and the future. They are 83 percent literate with very little difference between males and females. Only 27.68 percent of women in this age group are married (as opposed to 37.45 percent in 1981) and only 9.90 percent of men are married (as opposed to 13.14 percent in 1981). So, for the first time in this city in this age group, we have an overwhelming majority of unmarried adolescents and this is enough to change gender relations and family structures.

This has happened as nuclear families have increased from 48 percent in 1989 to 83 percent in 2006. In universities and colleges, women students constitute an overwhelming majority (72 percent in Karachi University and 87 percent of medical students) and the same applies to teaching staff in schools and, increasingly, in institutions of higher learning.

In almost all lower and lower-middle-income settlements in the city, there are young men and women who can sing, write and recite poetry, make interesting videos about their settlements, and use the internet for promoting their talents. Their main complaint is that there is no place for them to perform in public spaces, although many parks have amphitheatres. There are also young men and women who are establishing coaching centres, libraries and cyber cafes. This world of talent and aspirations remains undocumented and unsupported both by philanthropy and by the state.

10. The distance between academic theory and reality is increasing.

Academia in Pakistan is heavily dependent on theories produced in the West, which often conflict with the reality of Pakistan. The same applies for architecture and planning subjects. As more and more teaching faculty becomes Western-educated, pedagogy improves, but this gap increases. These theories, along with their building by-laws and zoning regulations, have determined the shape and form of our cities. And, as we can see, it has not worked.

Modernist models have failed to provide housing to our people; neoliberalism has increased homelessness and poverty; and transport systems require immense capital expenditure (in the shape of loans) and subsidies for operation and maintenance.

The world of urban Pakistan consists of numerous trade, shopkeepers, transporters, mandi [market] operators, organisations who are constantly promoting their claims and guarding their gains. But this world that determines so much of urbanisation in the country does not exist in the teaching of planning. Although there is a lot of South Asian literature on the subject and numerous journals, it does not get listed as compulsory reading material for students, while Western theoretical frameworks, which are also important, do. A change in the structure of thinking is required if we are to cater to our own realities.

What emerges from the discussions above is that those who are responsible for the planning of the city do not accept its socio-physical reality and this lack of acceptance is strengthened by the judgments of the judiciary.

This further promotes inequity, in socio-economic terms, which is aided by inappropriate land use changes, supported by officialdom and aided by anti-environment laws, exploitative developers and a failure, on the part of civil society and academia, to effectively challenge these processes.

This can only be changed through a well-researched vision of the city, supported by civil society, academia, community organisations and larger economic interest groups. Such a vision, apart from social sector facilities, should aim to preserve existing homes and jobs, improve transport and environmental conditions, and prevent the further deterioration of the region’s ecology, and which could eventually feed into the political system. But this can only be a long-term process.

For the time being, it would help the city, in environmental and ecological terms, if projects planned for it were exhibited in a public space for comments from interest groups, and citizens and members of civil society and communities could judge them in the larger interests of the city and be involved in their implementation.

This could lead to greater transparency and, maybe, even help in the prevention of future ecological damage which, if it continues, would destroy not only the city but the region and its inhabitants.

The writer is an architect and town planner. He can be reached at arifhasan37@gmail.com or www.arifhasan.org

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 14th, 2021

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