Karachi: The Housing Imperative

Thirty six point seven percent of Karachi’s land is currently utilised for residential purposes: 27 percent has been developed formally and 8.1 percent informally. The development process for the rest (which is 1.6 percent) is unclear. Sixty two percent of Karachi’s population lives on the 8.1 percent informally developed land. Seventy two percent of the informally developed settlements have been regularised or are marked for regularisation. As such, in legal terms, they can no longer be classified as informal.

Eighty percent of Karachiites live in plots of 120 square yards or less. Houses on plots of between 400 and 2,000 square yards account for only 2 percent of the total housing stock. Yet, they occupy about 20 percent of Karachi’s residential area.

Most of Karachi’s phenomenal post-independence population increase was accommodated by the creation of informal settlements. Many of these settlements today are close to the city’s employment zones and many have become major centres of formal and informal economic activity. The majority of them were established in the 1960’s and 70’s and well up to the mid-80’s they were purely working class settlements. Their leaders, for the most part, were semi-literate middle aged men who used an archaic feudal vocabulary (janab, hazoor, sharaf hasil hona, niaz-mand) in their conversations and in their correspondence with officialdom. At that time, there were almost no schools and health facilities in these settlements and very few working women. Small entrepreneurs catered to the needs of the population and generated subsistence employment. The community leadership and its members lobbied intensely for acquiring services and/or invested in building the rudiments of physical infrastructure themselves.

Today these settlements are not exclusively working class. A sizeable number of the younger generation, both men and women, has acquired skills and education. They are teachers, bank managers, IT professionals, and white-collar employees in the formal services sector. Suzuki loads of women go to work in garment and packaging factories and a large number work as contract labour in their homes. Water supply, sewage, gas and electricity are available and the settlements contain private schools and health services and also beauty parlours, cyber cafes and marriage halls on the pattern of the middle income areas of the city. Meanwhile, the leadership is young and educated and has shed its feudal vocabulary of janab and hazoor in favour of “uncle” and “aunty”, and that too is English.

The issue for these settlements is no longer one of a provision of services but of effective operation, management and maintenance of utilities and the provision of improved social sector facilities. So, the emphasis has to shift and support has to be provided for the consolidation of the social revolution that has taken place.

Up to the 90s, developing an informal settlement was a joint venture of an informal developer, staff and officials of relevant agencies with occasional support from politicians. Today, the creation of almost all informal settlements is backed by aggressive political patronage, increasingly ethnic in nature because of which many home seekers are reluctant to invest in them. Meanwhile, settlements without such patronage are insecure in every sense of the word.

The new low income settlements are far away from employment zones which makes it very difficult for women to work. Surveys show that people living in these settlements spend three to four hours travelling from home to work and back. Travel costs vary between Rs 56 to Rs 100 per day. In addition, there are social costs as well. Due to time spent in travelling, men cannot give time to their families and are tired and ill because of travelling in environmentally degraded and uncomfortable conditions.

Although land for housing is available in informal or semi-formal settlements, expanding families cannot access it easily as they did before this decade. The reason is that the cost of land in a newly developed katchi abadi in 1992 for one square metre was 1.7 times the cost of daily wage for unskilled labour at that time. Today, it is 40 times the cost of the daily wage for unskilled labour today. Meanwhile, similar increases have taken place in construction costs and in rental accommodation.

As a result of these factors, the only affordable and secure option for an increasing number of families is to build upwards, densifying their settlements. Areas, such as Nawalane in Lyari, which in 1992 had a density of 620 persons per hectare, have a density of over 3,250 persons per hectare today. Similar conditions are emerging in most of the older informal settlements and in many formal settlements as well. Apartment complexes which had an average of 5 to 6 persons per apartment living in them a decade ago, now often have 12 to 15 persons. Although, high densities have numerous advantages for city and infrastructure planning, the abnormally high densities emerging in the older settlements of Karachi are creating immense social and physical problems. These include family quarrels, rebellion among children and adolescents, promiscuity, inconvenience for married couples, breakdown of community cohesion, problems in use of toilets and kitchens which increasingly have to be shared, and an increasing gap in water demand and supply.

Statistics given earlier in this article present the stark inequities in Karachi’s residential land-use. Uncontrolled densification as a result of a lack of options, and a push of the lower income groups to the periphery, will only add to Karachi’s strife. Properly located and secure housing is an important ingredient for reducing conflict and inequity. This can be done if the large chunks of government land, within the city proper are made available for low income housing. This housing can be easily subsidised through market and other mechanisms. This is doable provided the will to build corruption-free institutions required for doing it are created. We have no option but to move in this direction, and for the sake of Karachi’s future generations, one hopes that it will be sooner than later.

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