Illegality and The Built Environment in Karachi

(Illegality has been put in parenthesis in the title and the text, because laws are strange things. Thousands of people were convicted under built environment related apartheid laws in South Africa and Israeli law and planning regulations have been developed in a manner that makes the demolition of Palestinian homes and occupation of their lands “legal”.)

In a recent judgement the Sindh High Court has decreed that no illegal building can be regularised. The Court has applied the law and concerned citizens, the press and many NGOs are happy about it, as they should be. However, the judgement does not solve the “illegality” related problems of Karachi’s built environment. This is because the city has tens of thousands of illegal buildings in its metropolitan area. In addition, there are also thousands that have been “regularised” over time through patronage and corruption and those whose major violations of zoning regulations have been “condoned”. If one adds the katchi abadi structures and their multi-storeyed commercial centres to the list, then the number of illegal buildings are not in tens, but in hundreds of thousands. Most of these will collapse beautifully in case of an earthquake, along with many of their legally built sisters.

In addition to these illegal buildings, there are large scale violations of land use, encroachments of every variety and polluting and dangerous industrial and storage activity in the heart of the city. If all this “illegality” is put an end to in the present conditions, Karachi will become a city of stranded, homeless, starving and jobless people and the collapse of its economy will impoverish its elite as well, except those who can manage to migrate. If on the other hand, we do not move to integrate much of this activity into a larger city plan in a phased manner, we will keep the system of insecurity, bhatta, coercion and corruption that accompanies the present status quo alive, and will continue to torture and torment the poorer sections of our society who are the main victims of it. In addition, we will continue to further devastate our already devastated environment. Again, if we move to regularise all this “illegality” without conditionalities and eventual plans, as one keeps hearing the government intends to do, then all hopes for an improvement in Karachi’s built environment conditions can be written off for the foreseeable and perhaps even the distant future. For these reasons, it is necessary to understand the scale of this “illegality” and the causes for it. Only after such an understanding can a rehabilitation plan be prepared and implemented that integrates and or phases out much of this “illegality” without further destroying the environment.

Illegal buildings and violation of zoning regulations for which most concern is shown are those that take place in the elite and upper and middle-middle income areas. However, these are not the most serious violations as far as the larger physical and social environment is concerned. They acquire this importance because of activists in these areas and their access to the press and the corridors of power. These violations are the result of irrationally high and manipulated land values; a powerful nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and developers in which billions of rupees exchange hands under the table every year; and large scale corruption and patronage at all levels of the establishment. But there are other factors also. One of these is the failure of the state to provide viable alternatives to densification along with necessary social and physical infrastructure, which includes good roads and transport from work areas to the suburbs. This is illustrated by the fact that after the building of the Liaquatabad Flyover, which reduces travel time from the city to the Super Highway, real estate interest has been revived beyond the Sohrab Goth on the Super Highway.

The most serious violations have occurred, and continue to occur, in the old city and its adjacent inner-city quarters. Here densification has been the highest (in certain areas over 1,800 persons per acre) and all rules and regulations have been violated and overtaken by demand. Here there is congestion and massive environmental degradation and there are many reasons for this. One, that natural population growth forces families to build upward since they cannot afford the cost of formal sector government or private development on the city’s fringes and nor do they have any access to credit for house or land purchase. Their only other option is to move to a katchi abadi and live in insecurity, which many are forced to do. Two, the old city contains Karachi’s wholesale markets and small scale industrial activity. These have been expanding rapidly to cater to increasing demands and require space for workshops, warehousing, accommodation for labour, cargo terminals and space for the services sector to transport. Since the state has never even considered providing these facilities elsewhere, slowly this whole area has become a large warehouse along with sweat shops and garbage sorting and recycling industries. Old buildings have been pulled down and reconstructed as warehousing and day-wage labour accommodation, violating all building bye laws and zoning regulations. Due to shortage of space, all these activities now occupy the pavements and are over-flowing on to the roads. For lack of space they have also expanded into the Lyari river bed and around the KMC and City Court complexes. By the way, this is where most of Karachi’s historic architecture, (much loved by its elite) is located. It is important to note that many associations of market operators in the old city and its neighbouring quarters have often requested the Karachi administration to provide them with alternative space, which is easily accessible by heavy vehicles from the Super Highway, Port and the railway, for their activities. These requests have fallen on deaf ears and so the “illegality” not only stays, but grows.

There are other forms of “illegality” as well. There are thousands of schools and clinics in residential houses in violation of zoning regulations. However, area plans have never provided space for these activities in a manner that is compatible with the way in which these sectors operate in Pakistan. Our planning standards are derived from the European town and country planning acts which were developed to cater to the requirements of a welfare state in which the government provided centralised health and education facilities in each neighbourhood and sub sector. As such, these planning standards are inappropriate to our needs (we never became a welfare state) and will continue to be violated. Again, it is common in Karachi (as in the rest of Asia) to have businesses in your homes. Consequently, there are tens of thousands of workshops and commercial outlets in people’s homes. In Orangi alone, the number is more than 42,000. These are strictly speaking illegal activities since our zoning regulations promote segregated and not integrated land-use planning. Again, this is because of our borrowing from our colonial masters. Even if these illegal commercial and industrial activities were banned, they would have no where to go since we have not planned for them either.  And then, what is wrong with integrated land-use as long as it is planned for and does not cater to hazardous activity?

Then there are encroachments. There are illegal bus and cargo terminals, workshops and depots on roads and on other public spaces. In many cases, permanent structures have been constructed to fulfil these requirements. Even state agencies have encroached on public space for these functions. But then this was bound to happen since we have not built or catered for these requirements either. Unless we cater to them they are bound to develop in an informal manner, through a process of corruption and coercion, wherever space is available.

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  1. […] Hasan, Arif. Illegality and The Built Environment in Karachi. 31st August 2001. […]

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