Illegality and The Built Environment in Karachi

The city also has an estimated 60,000 plus hawkers who occupy pavements and streets wherever there is active transport activity or main markets.  In many places, the local government has constructed shops in an ad-hoc manner to accommodate them and charges rent from them. Hawking is one of the few options left to jobless Karachiites and given the increasing scale of unemployment, it is increasing rapidly. These hawkers cannot be wished away or dislocated without serious social and economic repercussions. They need to be rehabilitated sympathetically or they will keep coming back. And if they are prevented from coming back, there will be an increase in unemployment, social conflict and crime.

And finally, there are the katchi abadis where over 50 per cent of Karachi’s population lives and which grow at the rate of seven per cent every year. No building bye-laws or zoning regulations apply to them. And why should they not grow? Karachi requires 80,000 housing units a year and the formal private and public sector supports the building of only about 28,000 and these too are unaffordable for poor families. Therefore, there are only two options for those affected by this demand-supply gap; either live on the streets or live in katchi abadis. Wisely and fortunately for the city, they opt for the latter.

Who pays to make all this “illegality” possible? It is Karachi’s lower and lower-middle income communities. The “beneficiary” of each “illegal” activity pays bhatta, either to government agencies, the police or to powerful mafias. These “beneficiaries” live in a constant state of insecurity and security, such as there is, can only be purchased or acquired through some form of patronage after running from pillar to post and being treated with insults, suspicion and hostility by officialdom. There are numerous other forms of “illegality” and coercion as well that are closely related to the problems of the physical environment and these include drugs, forced prostitution and child labour. However, to describe these subjects a separate article would be required. The amount of bhatta that is paid by informal service operators and communities every year to mafias and government agencies is around five to six billion rupees. This is a modest estimate and relates only to “illegalities” related to the built environment. Bhatta extorted by traffic police, police stations for “crime” related issues, staff of lower courts and other government agencies is in addition to this sum and definitely much larger.

To deal with the problems of the “illegalities” of the physical environment and its social and economic repercussions, the city requires a rehabilitation plan. The form of the plan can only be determined by sympathetic research into the dynamics of Karachi’s unplanned growth. However, certain priorities are obvious. These are: One, the building of the Northern By-pass and the shifting of wholesale markets, warehousing, related labour accommodation and cargo terminals to it. If only the bye pass is built (as is now being proposed) without building these other facilities, deterioration of the inner city will continue to increase. Two, development of the circular railway and its extensions into the suburbs and improvement in the road and transport systems on the corridors from major low income settlements to the work areas and the completion of missing link roads. Most of these missing links are of very small lengths. Three, changes in building bye-laws and zoning regulations so as to accept integrated land-use policies, develop a criteria for their partial regularisation and future implementation, help rationalise land prices and develop pro-pedestrian planning parameters. Four, to provide bus terminals, bus depots and workshops for inter-city and intra-city transport and link them to the intra-city rail and road transport systems. Five, to rehabilitate hawkers on pedestrianised streets and give their organisations the task of preventing an increase in their numbers on these locations. This can be done in a manner that will generate considerable revenues for the city and in a manner that improves the physical and social environment considerably. And six, the development of low income and lower-middle income housing near the city centre which is easily accessible from the major corridors of movement. Many successful models (such as Khuda-ki-Basti model), are available for large scale replication. And then, there are issues related to culture and entertainment, without which no city can function in this day and age.

Non-availability of finances, as is often made out to be, is not the major constraint in developing these projects. The constraints are an absence of political will, wrong priorities, a passion for mega projects as opposed to problem solving, corruption and the absence of institutions to develop and implement plans through community and interest group involvement. In short, a planning agency with teeth is required for Karachi. Such an institution has been on the cards since 1989 in the form of the proposed Karachi Division Physical Planning Agency (KDPPA). It is hoped that the government will expedite the creation of such an agency so that proper planning for the city can be undertaken. It is encouraging to note that the government’s task force for the Programme for the Economic Revival for Karachi (PERK) has recommended the creation of KDPPA and that the Sindh government has endorsed it.

However, it must be understood that simply changing of building bye laws and zoning regulations without a planning process, which every successive Sindh government attempts to do, will not solve Karachi’s problems. It must also be understood that for a rehabilitation plan to be successful, a greater importance has to be given to the sociology and culture of the communities that form the city, than to strict building codes and environmental standards borrowed from other cities. Existing practices have to be identified, the good ones supported and the bad ones regulated. This can only be done through an understanding born out of love and affection for the city’s’ past, its present residents (whom planners and officialdom attack at every meeting), and the changing needs of its younger generation, rather than through a cold, calculated planning exercise consisting of beautifully phrased laws and regulations that have little relationship to the realities of the city.  A Chinese proverb says “let not the best become the enemy of the good”. Karachi’s future planners should make this their motto and should understand what this means in our context.

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

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