Karachi and the Global Nature of Urban Violence

In 1991, according to official figures, 466 murders were committed in Karachi; there were 802 attempted murders; 421 cases of rioting, many of them against civic agencies; 103 rapes; 140 kidnappings for ransom; 12 of child stealing; 12 major armed bank robberies; 7,259 other robberies, including more than 1,200 car thefts, most of them at gun point; 1,019 burglaries; and 5,990 thefts. Among those murdered were 27 policemen, two judges, two custom officials, one member of an intelligence agency; three relatives of prominent politicians; two guards of local politicians; and six political activists. In the same year, 11 prominent journalists in the city were attacked. Double these figures (it is estimated that 50 percent of all crimes go unreported) and you have a picture of the savage effect crime and violence is having on Pakistan’s largest city.

Such violence is not unique to Karachi. From Los Angeles to New Delhi, urban crime statistics reveal that not only is the incidence of violence becoming more frequent, but the nature of those crimes more heinous. In India, for example, women are being burned to death because they are seen as being promiscuous or too “modern”. In South Africa 24,830 cases of rape (or one per 1,554 people) were reported in 1992; researchers estimate that 95 percent of rapes go unreported, implying that some 496,000 rapes were committed in that year. In Washington, D.C., there are currently as many as 250 to 350 shootings and stabbings a month.

The consequences are particularly catastrophic for young people. Increasingly, teenagers feeling the impact of widespread unemployment, the breakdown in family structures, and the disintegration of traditional values find identity in joining street gangs or being lured into the drug trade. In Mexico City, there are a reported 1,500 street gangs; in Rio de Janeiro, children are being used by drug dealers to spy on police and to even commit murders.

Such statistics raise the question of whether modern cities are inherently violent places to live. And if so, why? What lies behind the global increase in urban crime and violence? And how do those causes cut across developing and developed country lines?

Karachi: Reflection of a Global Crisis

In Karachi, the reasons for urban violence mirror those found in many developing and developed cities; ethnic conflict; political disagreements between the interests of the city and the province; the absence of basic physical and social infrastructure; social economic pressures; poor public administration and corruption among city planners; and the coming of age of a “second generation” of squatter settlers in informal areas who are alienated from the mainstream of urban life. Each of these causes is closely related and cannot be looked at in isolation.

For example, it is impossible to understand the current conflicts in Karachi without studying the history of migration that began in the late 1940s. Between 1947 and 1949, 600,000 Urdu speaking refugees migrated from India and settled in the city, changing not only the culture and language of Karachi but also marginalizing the local population.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the government’s green revolution program and industrialization policy resulted in a second major migration of Pushto speaking migrants from the northern provinces. These migrants brought with them strong tribal traditions, institutions, and support systems. Through political patronage and the political and financial power of the northern provinces they were able to dominate the transport sector and made up the majority of the working class. Their political loyalties were with their own provinces and not with the local Sindh population. In addition, their tribal structure, cohesion, informal credit systems, and energy made them a state within Karachi.

A Second Generation of Migrants

The kind of melting pot created by emigrants to Karachi is similar to many cities where the huge influx of rural people has created tensions between not only economic classes, but ethnic and cultural ones as well. What is striking about Karachi – because of the migrations of 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s – is that a second generation of refugees has grown up in the city (almost 70 percent of the population is Karachi born). This group of second generation migrants sees Karachi as its home; they have a more vested stake in the running of the city and feel entitled to a say in local politics and administration.

Second generation slum and informal settlement dwellers throughout the developing world are not like their fathers. Most of them are educated, have broken away from their traditional calm and rural structure, and have a need to identify with urban institutions and political processes. They often feel excluded from decision-making, which they see as controlled by the “elite” of the city. Thus they are alienated from the mainstream of political and social life. Their attempts to rectify the situation through dialogue and the political process are almost always thwarted, leading to violence and class and ethnic clashes.

In addition, the second generation in Karachi has supported the federal government in federal-provincial conflicts, which are a common occurrence in Pakistan. Because of this support they are often at odds with political forces representing Karachi’s surrounding areas and the city government. Although representatives from the rural areas still have more votes in the provincial assembly, they fear this new group of second-generation immigrants and their entrepreneurial spirit.

To protect the local inhabitants from being further marginalized, the provincial government has established a quota for Sindhis with the government and educational institutions. As a result, the Sindhis are guaranteed jobs and most of the provincial bureaucracy is non-Karachiite. To the growing number of second generation refugees this is an inequitable system; in opposition that have formed armed groups and in many cases violence replaces the ballot box when local questions are being decided. As a consequence, Karachiites have not been able to develop an independent and representative political structure for their city.

Not only is much of the bureaucracy in Karachi non-Karachiite but until recently the entire police force was drawn from the northern provinces of Pakistan. Given the constant struggle between the police and Karachi residents, this fact raises tensions even higher. Young Karachiites have composed poems, calling policemen “rural savages”, referring to them as “touts of the feudal system”. The police on the other hand consider the Karachiite as a troublemaker and a coward who “strikes from behind”. As such, the battle lines are clearly drawn.

The Conditions of Urban Life

A second factor leading to urban violence and crime is that the local government and development authorities, as in many developing country cities, are simply unable to provide residents with the basic services required for urban life.

It is estimated that over 4.5 million inhabitants of Karachi’s 10 million are living in informal squatter settlements, and that by the year 2000, seven million of Karachi’s 12 million population will be living in informal areas. These residents lack water supply, sewage, electricity, and health and education facilities. They live far away from their places of work and depend on an inhuman and inefficient system of transportation to get to and from their jobs. Many squatter residents spend five to six hours travelling to and from their work. During this time they are pushed around, packed like sardines into buses, and subjected to severe noise and air pollution. Parents have little time or energy after the work day to care for their children; cases of wife and child beating are the unfortunate results.

Housing is also in critically short supply. In the 1960s and 1970s the average annual demand for housing in Karachi was 40,000 units, most of them for low income communities. The state could only provide about 5,000 plots or units per year. Even these could not reach the target groups due to their high cost, complicated procedures of allotment, and long delays in development of services. To compensate for this, an informal system of illegally occupying and subdividing state land and then selling it to low income families developed. This process was managed by middlemen and supported by corrupt government officials who violated and defied state rules and regulations. Over the years these land grabbers have become so powerful that government officials have now become their junior partners.

The informal transportation industry is another major issue. Of the 13,622 buses and minibuses operating in Karachi, only 1,800 belong to the state. The rest belong mostly to individual owners who have taken an informal loan to purchase them. The loans are given by tribal chiefs and professional money lenders from the north and only to people from their own areas. The loans carry a high rate of interest and the owners have to work day and night in order to make their payments. To repay the loans, operators have to violate traffic rules, illegally change their routes, and put pressure on and mistreat their passengers. To continue along these lines, they seek and pay for police protection.

The result of such stress is that many of Karachi’s major ethnic conflicts have been the result of fatal accidents caused by minibuses. After a fatal accident, mobs set the minibus on fire, often killing the driver and then attacking police stations. Since the minibus operators all belong to one ethnic group, the conflict acquires an ethnic coloring and spread like wildfire. The police, according to Karachiites, support the operators because they receive money from them. Despite claims from local authorities that they have plans for phasing out the minibuses, recent surveys show that 3,000 minibuses are operating in Karachi without route permits in violation of all laws and with full protection of the police authorities.

The city also faces an acute shortage of electricity and water supply. The more powerful and enterprising localities in the city manage to bribe or pressure civic agencies into better serving their areas. This is resented by those living in less fortunate areas who have no means of voicing their resentment and anger. In recent years, attacks on the offices of the Karachi Electricity Supply Corporation and the Karachi water and Sewerage Board and the beating up of their staff have become a common feature, not only in low income but also in lower middle income areas. These attacks are followed by violence against the police force, who intervene to protect the offices and the utility company officials.

In the 20 to 25 years that it takes a squatter settlement to overcome these problems, a whole generation of angry young men and women have grown up in conflict with the establishment. During the early years, they are continually fighting the establishment, catering to its corruption, negotiating with it as an unequal, and suffering as a result. This suffering may mean having your home demolished, your children beaten up during the bulldozing of a settlement, being arrested, having your valuables taken from you, and living without sufficient water and sanitation. The generation that grows up in this environment hates the establishment, especially the police. Any political organization that attacks the establishment is supported by this group – a situation common to most if not all developing countries.

A New Way of Life

The psychological and social strains on migrants coming from the rural areas also cannot be underestimated. Migrants enter a new form of life when they arrive in Karachi and settle in informal settlements. Traditional values must be compromised; women have to work; and children grow up in any environment that fosters attitudes in conflict with traditional values. Often the family breaks up once children become old enough to leave home. When family conflicts are not managed properly – and they seldom are – angry young rebels are created who become the potential muscle power of the mafia and extremist political parties, or neighborhood toughs and petty criminals. Case studies show that many young men who are forced to give up their education for economic reasons often take to violence or to crime.

In addition, many migrants now coming into the cities are met by middlemen – rather than relatives and their families – who put them up in vertical slums in the centre of the city. Here they live as day wage laborers in small rooms that are often share by between ten and twenty people living in shifts. The result is that the area around the city centre and central port has become a “male only” neighborhood, jammed with “adult” entertainment. Much of the entertainment is arranged through drug money and violence in the area is rampant.

A major casualty of such violence is the educational system. Apart from long periods of being closed, universities and professional colleges have become armed strongholds of warring factions. The army had to disarm these factions and move into the university campuses last year. Universities and colleges in Karachi are now surrounded by high walls; entrances are guarded by army and para-military forces; people can only enter if they can prove their identity and are searched. Cultural and extra-curricular activities have become non-existent. Cheating on exams has also become common, and those administering the exams are often threatened at gun point. Para-military forces are stationed at all examination centers to protect staff. As a result, many people now send their children to study abroad. Expensive educational institutions are being developed in the private sector whose high fees are beyond the reach of lower income or lower middle income groups. These institutions are drawing away the better teaching staff from public sector institutions. Universities and institutions of higher learning are ceasing to be a place where Karachiites of all classes can meet and grow together; education is now segregated according to economic class. Nothing could promote polarization and conflict more than this segregation of the city’s youth.

The Consequences: Violence Takes Hold

In 1987 violence escalated in Karachi as those operating the transportation systems and refugees fought each other. The conflict acquired an ethnic coloring; a number of ethnic parties surfaced and existing ones became more powerful. Guns were used in the conflict, and the city was put under long periods of curfew. Kidnappings for ransom, car thefts at gun point, and indiscriminate rifle fire became a daily occurrence. Most of the political activists who were involved in this conflict were second generation informal settlement dwellers. This conflict had severe economic consequences. Day wage labor could not be earned because of curfews. The port and industrial areas were closed for days on end. Police and army pickets searched cars and buses and a large number of people were arrested. As a result, businesses closed down and industrialists started to invest in cities in the north. Many rich migrants, most businessmen, went back to and invested in their provinces. As a result, employment increased suddenly.

Most of the violence in Karachi is supposed to be the work of the unemployed educated young men who are also political activists and belong to the lower middle classes. Violence has also affected the more affluent classes. Years of violence has closed down cinemas, made travel to beaches and the countryside difficult, kept universities and colleges closed for months, and brutalized society. As a result, idle rich young men and women, who have no access to entertainment of any kind, have taken to crime and violence.

The violence in the city and the administration’s failure to stem it have led to a general feeling of insecurity. Security companies have arisen in the private sector that cater to high income groups. Computerized burglar alarms, security guards linked by wireless to mobile armed vehicles, collective compounds, and gunmen on the front seats of expensive cars are becoming more frequent. The rich are now living in secluded urban ghettos; they do not visit the city center or the old shopping areas. Their children do not go to the museums or to the zoo. The city’s historic and civic institutions have become run down, as is the city center. Libraries, art galleries, spa facilities, and entertainment areas are now being developed in elite suburbs. Yet despite their security measures and seclusion in ghettos the most violent and major robberies are committed in the elite areas of the city, and it is the elite that are kidnapped for ransom.

New Directions

The description I have given of Karachi seems hopelessly pessimistic. Yet there are signs that conditions will improve. In the past few years a number of groups and people have emerged to fight against the deteriorating situation in the city and to mitigate the social, economic, political, and psychological damage that has been done. These include the Edhi Trust, a large relief organization that operates ambulances and rehabilitation centers for drug addicts; provides help and assistance to victims of riots and natural calamities; runs blood banks; and helps in looking after and rehabilitating destitute children and women who have been subjected to violence, rape, and mental cruelty. Without the Edhi Trust one does not know how Karachi would cope with its victims of violence.

Then there is the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) which has developed models of infrastructure provision, preventive health programs, and income generation credit systems for low income settlements. The OPP programs overcome the financial, technical, and administrative constraints that the state faces in upgrading and supporting informal settlements. The work of the OPP is expanding fast. There is also the Urban Resource Center (URC) that informs communities and groups about local government schemes for Karachi as a whole and in the process makes them aware of how government planning will affect their neighborhood and their lives. This mobilizes them for action.

The Citizens-Police liaison Committee (CPLC) is another organization. Citizens who have problems in dealing with corrupt police practices are helped and supported by the CPLC. There is also talk of establishing a Citizens-Minibus Operators Liaison Committee to improve the minibus service. The recently formed Concerned Citizens Association has filed public interest cases in court against the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation, Karachi Water and Sewerage Board, and the Pakistan Telecommunications Corporation.

But the solution to Karachi’s violence can only develop if the continuing horizontal and vertical polarization of the society is arrested and reversed. This requires political vision and will; new and culture, economics, and sociology of low income groups; and the active promotion of institutions and attitudes that support urban values and culture as opposed to the feudal one that still dominates the media and political life in Pakistan.

Other solutions include creating a city government that represents the people, giving them a say in setting priorities. If this is allowed to occur there is no reason for the city not to be able to raise its own revenues – a factor essential to unifying different groups in the city. Likewise, committees made up of community members and city officials could liase on a regular basis concerning planning, maintenance, and operational problems.

In response to the question of whether cities are inherently violent places to live, I think the answer is no. Karachi, like cities and towns all over the world, is struggling to adjust to massive immigration, a faltering economy, and an overburdened administrative system. If a renaissance of urban culture and values is allowed to flourish cities can overcome their problems. The culture of second generation dwellers, if recognized, could contribute to the planning of a city – a situation much better than that of the city imposing its plan of development on an unknowing and unwilling public. Through this, members of the informal sector, who make up an increasing percentage of residents, could be better understood and institutions supporting them developed and sustained.

These solutions are not unique to Karachi – they apply to cities throughout the developing world.

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