Between the People and the Polis

Karachi, Mumbai, Delhi, all aspire to become world-class cities in their literature. Some wish to become like Shanghai, as with Mumbai, others wish to become like Dubai, as with Karachi, although the context of Shanghai or Dubai is very far removed from them. A world-class city has been defined beautifully and also sympathetically by Mahbubur Rahman (a Bangladheshi planner) in a brilliant paper and in other literature as well. According to the world-class city agenda, the city should have iconic architecture. It should be recognised with something like the highest building or fountain in the world. It should be branded for a particular cultural, industrial or other product or happening. It should be an international event city. It should have high-rise apartments as opposed to upgraded settlements and low-rise neighborhoods. It should cater to international tourism. It should have malls as opposed to traditional markets. This is how it has been described and this is what a global city or a world-class city today is trying to achieve.

For establishing this image, poverty is pushed out of the city to the periphery and already poor-unfriendly by-laws are made even more unfriendly by permitting environmentally and socially unfriendly land-use conversions. This is driving out industry and businesses from poor settlements. The three most important repercussions of this agenda are: 1) that global capital increasingly determines the physical and social form of the city; 2) in the process, projects have replaced planning; and 3) land-use is now determined on the basis of land value alone and not on the basis of social and environmental considerations. Land has unashamedly become a commodity and so the poor cannot be adequately serviced. The city stands divided as never before. My city is now four cities. They speak different languages, they have different types of shopping centres. They even have different types of education institutions, and they only meet at the beach or in some parks at the city centre.

High-rise buildings, we have conclusively shown that these settlements can be upgraded to four or five storeys with the help of the residents, and could be regularised. So we do not feel the need for pulling down these settlements and re-planning them as the state insists on doing. As far as events are concerned, from what we gather, about 500,000 persons were evicted from Delhi for the preparation of the 2010 Asian Olympics [Commonwealth Games] alone. Numerous studies show how poor people become after relocation: loss of social capital, loss of physical capital, and relocations are often 20-30 kilometres – sometimes much more than that – from where they work. Children’s education is the most serious disruption that is caused. In one of the projects that we opposed, which was partially successful, 2800 students could not take their metric and pre-metric exams because of the bulldozing that took place.

The world-class city image is all about gentrification and it has no place in it for informal businesses and hawkers except as organised tourist attractions. The link of these hawkers and businesses with low income people (for whom they make life affordable) and with commuters is not recognised and as such, large scale evictions of informal businesses and hawkers have taken place without any compensation in all the mega-cities in Asia, of which Calcutta is perhaps the worst example. This has impoverished millions of families.

Projects should seek to serve the interests of the majority who live in our cities, who are the lower-middle class and the working class.

Then the free market economy has led to a considerable liquidity in banks and leasing companies. This has been utilised for providing loans for the purchase of cars. Karachi registered, in the year 2006-07, 606 cars per day. When I was in Delhi in 2007, I was told that the cars being registered here were 1250 per day. Bangkok was even more – 1750 cars per day. Now, there is a nexus between the automobile industry, the banking sector and the oil sector. We learnt this when we discovered that 1.6 billion USD worth of loans had been given by the Karachi banks for the purchase and leasing of cars. My friend Taseem Siddique went to the prime minister on our behalf and said, “Can’t we use this for some other purposes?” He was excited, so we had a meeting with 18 bank heads, who said no, that automobiles were the thing they would invest in, because the loans were short, they knew the clients, they were sure of returns, and housing was not something they would invest in. And one of them told me when we were leaving, he said, “Arif, you must realise the automobile industry, the banking sector are one and the same thing, they are not two different things.” So these are the new realities with which we have had to deal with.

Now there are many other factors that I will also just touch on. Transport: We can have all the mass transit systems. We have big plans for Karachi, but when we study them we see that the transportation for people living on the fringe, in large informal settlements, will not improve. The transport that we will be providing them will be far too expensive, unless a very major subsidy is attached to it. It is expensive because we are building on a process of build, operate and transfer, which is also a free market economy concept, whereas if we just let the Pakistan Railways manage it, the costs would be considerably less. That is one aspect I wanted to touch upon.

We have in Karachi, about 80,000 autos and we have an additional 60,000 of what we call Qingqis – these are six-seater motorcycle rickshaws. The Karachiites love them, they find them cheaper, women find them safer, and the government wishes to ban them and they did ban them, but they are still there because the High Court of Sindh decided that they are essential for the people. Now the problem is, what do we do with them, because there is so much antagonism against them. Even though they have a right now to function, the police does everything possible to limit their movement. The other way in which the transport issue is being tackled is by motorbikes. In 2004, we had 400,000 motorbikes, while today we have 1.7 million motorbikes. And all surveys show – we had surveys done at bus stops – everybody wants motorbikes. And if we reduce the price to 20,000 rupees instead of 32,000 rupees, I don’t think we will need a mass transit system, or any expansion of a mass transit system. Now the question is, do we promote these forms of movement, these forms of transport? It is a serious discussion which we have been trying to indulge in, so should they be promoted?

Now, I don’t know any of these cities that have produced an alternative vision for the city. There has been a lot of writing on ‘what should be or should not be’, but a vision that is acceptable or seriously pursued has not been presented. When the Karachi Special Development Plan was being made, I was a member of one of the committees, and we said, “Let’s not have this vision of world-class city, but let us have a vision of a pedestrian and commuter-friendly city.” It would change everything; the whole manner of planning would change if the vision was kept there. But, one of the members of the Asian Development Bank who was a member of the meeting said, “With this vision, nobody would invest any money in the city.” So, that was out.

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