Unplanned urbanisation in Karachi

Published December 6, 2021
A large numbers of vehicles are stuck in a traffic jam due to negligence of traffic police staff and illegal parking in the Karimabad area of Karachi.
A large numbers of vehicles are stuck in a traffic jam due to negligence of traffic police staff and illegal parking in the Karimabad area of Karachi.

Unplanned urbanisation is an unnoticed phenomenon that has long plagued Pakistan. Many misconceptions are prevalent in Pakistani society hampering the country’s prosperity. Once such misconception happens to be urbanisation and its quintessential necessity for economic growth. We are under the false impression that if urban activity grows that would transpose to the country’s economy surging. From a theoretical standpoint, this may stand true, however, from a pragmatic view this is false.

The issue is that in Pakistan, most of this urbanisation is unpremeditated, without following a plan or even obtaining permits. This “unplanned urbanisation” drastically lowers economic output along with having adverse effects on the daily lives of Pakistanis. This is most apparent in the bustling metropolis of Karachi. The city harbours an unofficial population of over 16 million earning it a spot on the populous cities in the world. Rough estimates have shown that Karachi has expanded over 50 times since independence in 1947. With drastic growth taking place, the city developed in an inadvertent manner. Unplanned urbanisation negatively impacts the lives of Karachiites depriving them of basic facilities and resulting in lower economic productivity.

Unplanned urbanisation lessens the economic prosperity occurring in the city of Karachi. Karachi is the business capital of Pakistan and generates over half of the country’s GDP. With the remarkable opportunities available in the city, there is an influx of migrants from rural areas which in turn drives up the population — resulting in unplanned urbanisation.

Rough estimates have shown that Karachi has expanded over 50 times since independence in 1947

Another cardinal reason for this spontaneous growth is the incompetency of certain authorities along with land grabbing (corruption). One key example of how disorganised expansion has lowered the economy in the city can be found in the lack of public transport. Being a city with so much revenue, it is outlandish to think that Karachi doesn’t have a proper form of public transport. Before there was the Karachi Circular Railway, however, that fell into disarray after the emergence of land encroachments due to the unconstrained expansion of the city.

The void of public transport damages Karachi’s economy as people are forced to resort to using cars, motorcycles and scooters which results in increased expenses for an individual. Moreover, public transport stimulates economic growth as it provides jobs and increases mobility. In fact, an American Public Transportation Association research paper tells us that for every $1 invested in public transport, there is a return of $4. While this 400 per cent return might not be feasible in Karachi, this article still gives us an idea of the economic benefits public transport incurs. By not having public transport, Karachi is missing out on potential economic returns.

Moreover, unplanned urbanisation has resulted in electricity shortages. Load shedding is a common nuisance that every Karachiite is familiar with, however, apart from being a source of annoyance and inconvenience, it transposes in massive economic losses in the industrial sector. Industries that have a large electricity dependence such as Auto, Chemical, and Steel are some of the most affected. According to media reports, surveys conducted on an array of industries claim that load shedding on average results in a 30pc lower manufacturing yield.

A recent controversy in Karachi has been the demolishing of the Nasla Tower. The Supreme Court of Pakistan had issued an order for the demolition of The Nasla Tower. The general public needs to understand that Nasla Tower was a product of disorganised expansion and forced land acquisition.

The effects of the demolition of the tower are ubiquitous, halting the growing demand for apartments in the city of Karachi. The Builders Association has in fact issued a statement in which they are not constructing new towers due to a sharp decline in the number of bookings since the disputation. Investors and homebuyers alike have lost confidence in the builders fearing that their building may be hinged on dubious foundations.

In the 1960s, a grid plan was designed for Karachi by European civil engineers and city planners. A fraction of the plan was carried out before it was scrapped. Ever since then there has been no major public development schemes, resulting in a city based on spontaneous, haphazard, and disorderly growth.

Due to the city’s disorganised set-up, a plethora of problems has sprung up. One that has recently gained traction concerns air quality. In the winter season, Karachi frequently ranks in the top 10 worst cities in terms of air quality, with its air being dubbed “unhealthy”. Bad air quality can lead to shorter life spans, along with many respiratory problems, especially for asthmatic patients. This air quality index is caused by lax urban planning (or lack thereof) in which green spaces with trees aren’t commissioned.

Moreover, the city has expanded to the extent to which residential and industrial areas have intertwined, leading to industrial fumes polluting the city skies.

Housing over 16m people, it is unfathomable to believe that there is only one major artery that connects this city to the airport and beyond. There are no major plans that are being undertaken to ameliorate the dire situation. In Karachi, traffic accidents not only attribute to over 30,000 accidents a year but also stunt economic growth by decreasing mobility.

For a city that has expanded over 50 times in just 70 years, it was inevitable for it to experience spontaneous and rampant unorganised growth. Spontaneous urbanization is a problem that has long occurred in the city, however for the most part it remains unnoticed. It results in a tirade of problems that hinder the day-to-day lives of Karachiites. It also possesses many economic ramifications that cost the economy billions every year. If the misconception that urban growth transposes to economic success is abolished, the lives of many Karachiites will be better. The local authorities along with the federal government must take the necessary steps to address this misconception otherwise this urban sprawl will give rise to an insurgency in order to curtail the unsustainable urban development.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 6th, 2021

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