Between the People and the Polis

Let me summarise. Mega-cities will have to find homes, transport and social services for their new arrivals who are not related to any formally structured group. They will have to cater to the needs and aspirations of the older informal settlements, which can only happen if they are protected from evictions and relocations and supported through laws, regulations and procedures in developing the social and physical infrastructure that they are already trying to develop on their own. They will have to promote new societal values to accommodate the changes that are taking place. I will also briefly mention something else which I had not planned to, but I think I should – the nature of social change in the older settlements. The most important group in the census is between 14 and 24 years of age because it’s the present and the future. In this age group, in 1981, 39 percent of women were married. Today, in this age group, less than 20 percent women are married; 17 percent of men were married in ’81. Eight percent of men are married today. For the first time in the history of the city, we have an overwhelming majority of unmarried adolescents and this is enough to change social structures and gender relations. And that is what has happened. And extended families, clans, settlements based on clan, they are rapidly becoming history. Also there are other factors: court marriages where a couple goes to a court to seek protection because it’s a self-willed marriage. In 1992, we had 12-15 applications per day for court marriages. In 2006, we had 250 plus applications for court marriages per day. And it has probably increased, but a time will come when it will decrease rapidly when the concept of marrying for your own free will becomes acceptable in society. More than half the applications today come from the rural areas. So I think these are important changes that are taking place which are going to affect, I feel, the future of these cities.

Concepts such as ‘it is not the business of the state to do business’, ‘cities are the engines of growth’, direct foreign investment, and concepts linking economic well-being with GDP growth have had a major impact on the national policies of Southasian countries and especially on the mega-cities.

Now, one important thing is the changing nature of official planning. We inherited the welfare state model from our colonial masters. However, we were not able to implement it except on paper due to institutional and financial constraints and a lack of political will. This is what is normally said, but I don’t think that is the only reason. The real reason was well-entrenched anti-poor social systems and land-ownership patterns. I think this was one of the major reasons. This concept has been eclipsed by the neoliberalism of the 1990s and beyond, and has been promoted aggressively both by international institutions and their local partners. Collectively, these organisations and their local partners have promoted what has come to be known as the ‘free market’ economy, which aims to remove subsidies on health, education and housing; increase taxation on utilities; sell government industrial and real estate assets to the national or international corporate sector; and remove restrictions on imports and exports. This had been done. I am not against all this, but there are other considerations.

Whole new terminologies and concepts have been developed to support this market economy. Concepts such as ‘it is not the business of the state to do business’, ‘cities are the engines of growth’, direct foreign investment, and concepts linking economic well-being with GDP growth have had a major impact on the national policies of Southasian countries and especially on the mega-cities. A whole new world, a whole new thinking has become acceptable. Now, from what I read about India, 500 Special Economic Zones have been established and corporate farming has been promoted. And according to some papers that I read, between 2010 and 2015, it was estimated that 400 million people would willingly or unwillingly be forced to move from rural to urban areas. I don’t know how correct this is but these are the figures you get in a number of papers. This is twice the population of the United Kingdom, France and Germany put together. All this has also affected agriculture. It is replacing food crops by cash crops, and in the process increasing the cost and shortage of food and making the state vulnerable to corporate sector pressures and interests. I think this was nicely summed up by a farmer in Tharparkar, who said to me, “Pehle hum jo botai thai, khathe thai, ab jo botai hai, usko bechtai hai, aur khana kharidte hai.” (Before we used to eat what we grew, now we grow it to sell and then buy our food). I think this has happened and it has affected a very large section of our population. 

The free market promoted political reforms and deregulations that have also had a major impact on property markets and have reshaped the politics of land development. Trading across borders in gold and contraband goods is no longer lucrative. As a result, the gangs and mafias involved in these underworld activities have become involved in the real estate business and linked up with their underworld partners.  The narcotic trade today funds much of the real estate development, at least in my city. All this has introduced an element of violence and targeted killings and kidnappings of opponents, rivals and social activists in the land and the real estate sector.

The state in almost all cases has responded to these market pressures and made land available for development through land-use conversions, new development schemes and the bulldozing of informal settlements. NGOs and CBOs who have challenged this process have faced two constraints (apart from their own internal weaknesses and culture); one is an unsympathetic media, which reports stories but not the causes, and the other is an absence of laws to prevent environmentally and socially inappropriate land conversions. Even where such laws do exist, rules, regulations and procedures and institutions to manage and implement them are often missing. As a result, courts often deliver judgments that promote inequity, poverty and social fragmentation. Media too is increasingly being controlled by a few organisations. Eighty-two percent of Karachiites have access to TV according to the census.

I will pass over this because it will take too long, and come to some of the issues. What has been elaborated and said before has had a profound effect on the shape and politics of our cities. The shape that our cities are taking and the reasons behind them are the result of a powerful nexus of developers and investors (many of dubious origins, otherwise such large sums of money could not have been mobilised), compromised government institutions and bureaucrats, and politicians seeking global capital for re-shaping their cities in the image of the West – an image that is promoted (implicitly or explicitly) by the promoters of the market economy. To promote this paradigm, a new term and concept has been developed, and that is of the world-class city.

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