Blurred boundaries

Published May 10, 2021
The writer is a Karachi-based academic and researcher.
The writer is a Karachi-based academic and researcher.

INSTEAD of a ‘politics of control’, the residents of Karachi desire a ‘politics of performance’. This approach is nowhere in sight. The city is managed along tightly contested administrative boundaries. A key component in this respect is development jurisdiction.

To consolidate and promote urban development, the Karachi Development Authority was formed in 1957. Its jurisdiction extended to all of Karachi minus the federally controlled locations. In 1993, the Sindh government carved out the Malir and Lyari development authorities to ‘effectively serve’ the needs of underdeveloped areas in these locations. The core purpose of separating LDA and MDA was to exercise control over the vast land reserves that existed in these two territories and determine the land supply regime for them.

The large real estate developments along the M-9 Motorway, initiated after evicting the traditional livestock herders and farmers, became possible because MDA was tightly controlled by the Sindh government. In other words, MDA represented the usual provincial control on land distribution practices. Large swathes were recently added to existing real estate ventures in the same way.

Why is Karachi one of the world’s least liveable cities?

Control over land utilisation patterns is hugely lucrative. One can observe major arterial roads and streets in Karachi dotted with high-density high-rise developments. This became possible because the erstwhile city district government allowed a change of floor area ratio of plots on notified major streets for high-rise construction. It brought windfall profits to owners, builders and developers and officials of regulatory agencies. The ‘control’ never translated into res­ponsible service delivery and better administration. Ordinary residents suffered as no infrastructure rehabilitation plan was ever initiated to enable the area to benefit from better quality urban services. Water shortage, drop in natural gas pressure, overflowing sewage and breakdown of service roads became common to these locations.

Additionally, infrastructural functions and services were consolidated into single-purpose bodies, eg the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board and Sindh Solid Waste Management Board. Survey and identification of katchi abadis is entrusted to the Sindh Karachi Katchi Abadis Authority and KMC. So, did performance and service delivery improve as a result of these changes? According to the Karachi City Diagnostic, a study by the World Bank, the city suffers from an acute infrastructural crisis. Only about 55 per cent of water needs are met on a daily basis; non-revenue water comprises about 60pc. Less than 60pc population has access to the public sewerage system, and high quantities of untreated wastewater flows into the sea.

Overall, Karachi is among the bottom 10 cities in the Global Liveability Index. In this grim situation, one must ask whether administrative manoeuvrings like re-carving territorial units, creating new municipal corporations or doling out vast land reserves for costly, exclusive real estate development can salvage the city and its citizens.

Karachi’s administration and provincial agencies have taken measures that hit the urban poor on a continuous basis. While the city has a plethora of problems, the only visible action the authorities are busy with is evictions. The needs of the urban poor are several. A survey of existing katchi abadis for possible regularisation, review of building processes to accommodate densification, provision of water and sewerage infrastructure, rehabilitation of roads, development of drains to prevent urban flooding and facilitation of citizens’ registration for CNICs are just some of these.

In addition, new sites must be identified to develop housing for low-income people. Studies say that about 10 million people live in katchi abadis with a sizable number in overcrowded situations. Many do not have decent options to access housing alternatives within their affordability status. Given multiple vulnerabilities, a study for identification of potential sites for such settlements must be undertaken. When Karachi can offer large tracts of land to investors and overseas Pakistanis, it can surely eke out locations where these hardworking residents can live and progress in sanitary conditions.

The service delivery process must also be aligned with the geographical and socioeconomic diversity of the city. Peripheral locations have some persistent problems that are never addressed. The recent by-election campaign in NA-249 is a case in point. People from the entire constituency, in various news reports, spoke with one voice about the faulty and non-existent water supply. There are many other locations that face similar challenges. Unless a Karachi division-level urban planning agency is created with adequate functional autonomy and resources, we will continue to be mired in ad hoc interventions.

The writer is a Karachi-based academic and researcher.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2021

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