IF the reported preliminary results of the 2011 Pakistan population census are to be believed, Karachi is the fastest-growing city in the world, followed by Mexico City.
Its population increased from 9.8 million in 1998 to 21.2 million in 2012. No other city in history has ever experienced so large a population increase in so short a time.
Although much of this increase is attributed to disaster- and conflict-related migration (mainly from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), anecdotal evidence from 13 villages in Sindh and southern Punjab suggests that a very large migration for other reasons is taking place to Karachi and, to a lesser extent, the smaller regional centres.
This evidence is supported by interviews of transporters and mandi operators from the small and intermediate towns of Sindh and by observation and conversations with recent Sindhi-speaking migrants in Karachi.
There are two main interconnected reasons for this migration. One is the weakening of the moral authority of feudal control on the rural areas of Sindh and southern Punjab which has made physical and social mobility possible.
The second is the increasing need for cash that the rural economy cannot provide to the poorer sections of the population. The first to migrate are the artisans since their skills are more in demand in the expanding urban centres (mainly Karachi) than in the rural areas.
The kumhars have migrated because earthenware utensils have been replaced by factory-produced plastic and metal and it is better business to migrate and manufacture flowerpots and decorative items for city dwellers.
The lohars no longer manufacture agriculture-related tools; the meghwar weavers no longer weave cloth; and the chamars no longer make shoes. All these items are now industrially produced in the cities and sold in the rural areas and these rural-based artisan skills are in great demand in the expanding urban centres.
As a result, Sindhi carpenters and masons, unlike before, are now increasingly visible on building sites in Karachi and Tharri tailors in the garment factories of the city.
The sunaras, who were the traditional bankers, have been replaced by formal banks and bonds on stamped paper and the emerging educated, job-seeking middle class migrate to Karachi where the vast majority of jobs are located.
The migration of the artisans has impoverished rural society as a result of which it has to depend on city manufactured goods and pay cash for them. This impoverishes it further, and hence, more migration.
It has to be understood that this migration to Karachi is very different from the migration of the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s, from Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
That migration took place from societies where the traditional class and caste structures had not broken down; there was no universal pressure for educating children; and there was no pressure from consumerism either. Those who migrated made a conscious decision to improve their family conditions. There was no other pressure to migrate. The present migration, however, is from a society where traditional governance systems no longer function; clan and extended family relations are under stress; and a barter and subsistence economy, on which the landless survived, is dead for all practical purposes.
Another important factor that makes this migration different from the earlier ones is that the traditional ‘low castes’ are also migrating in large numbers and establishing themselves in exclusive settlements in Karachi. These include jogis, chungars, and ods, traditionally nomadic people who, once in Karachi, broke free from the superstition and caste-related discrimination that they have historically been subjected to. It would be interesting to study the effect of their migration on caste relations in the rural areas.
Evidence from the villages also suggests that a lot of migration of families is related to the difficulties in educating girls in the villages due to an absence of high schools and colleges.
Boys can live on their own or commute to the towns (if they are nearby) where these institutions exist. Girls, on the other hand, have to be sent to families or friends in these towns and given the changes in socioeconomic relations, they are no longer as welcome as they used to be.
This also explains the growing demand for girls’ hostels in the small towns and especially in Karachi and Hyderabad.
Karachi was far away from Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but it is close to the rest of Sindh and is the capital of province. This makes migration physically and psychologically easier. Also, this migration is taking place from an area that has a much larger population than that of the 1980s Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa put together.
This, along with the reasons and processes described, will make the migration much larger and given the state of flux in society and the media revolution, the migrants will adapt more easily and with much enthusiasm to change and urban culture.
The migrations of the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s to Karachi were to a city that was relatively ‘conflict-free’. The rich and poor lived in close proximity, shared a lot of public space and entertainment and recreation facilities, ate the same sort of food, and even the children of the elite spoke to each other in Urdu, which is no longer the case.
Today, the city is divided on class and ethnic basis into different enclaves having different cultures and even very different physical infrastructure requirements, such as transport.
Shared public space and entertainment and recreational facilities, apart from the beach (which is being subjected to a process of ruthless gentrification) have become almost non-existent.
Based on the above discussion, two questions arise. One, what will replace the present social construct in the rural areas and how will it affect the politics of Sindh? Two, how will Karachi accommodate this migration in political, physical and social terms?
Both the questions require research which so far is non-existent. However, one thing is certain, if planned for sympathetically and with knowledge, this migration can lead to a badly needed integration of the province with its capital. If left on its own, it may well have the opposite effect.
The writer is an architect and planning consultant in private practice.