Land and the Politics of Ethnicity

Politically motivated targeted killings, sectarian violence, forced occupation of other people’s property, illegal bulldozing of poor settlements, an increasing crime rate and an increasingly helpless and corrupt administration, are making Karachi ungovernable. There are many local, national and international causes for this state of affairs. However, a major cause is the politics of ethnicity and the close link it has unwittingly acquired with the trillions that can be made from the land and real estate business.

If we project the findings of the 1998 Census then Karachi’s population today is about 14 million. However, we have no other data to go by except statistics based on speculation. A new census, which in all other South-Asian countries is held every ten years, is nowhere in the offing.  Again, we have to turn to the 1998 Census for understanding what the city looks like in ethnic terms. According to the Census, 48 per cent of the city’s population is Urdu speaking, 14 per cent is Punjabi speaking, 12 per cent is Pashto speaking and about 9 per cent is Sindhi speaking and increasing rapidly. The rest of the population speaks all the remaining languages of Pakistan.

Almost seventy-five per cent of the city’s population lives in settlements or neighbourhoods segregated on the basis of ethnicity. This is not just true of low income settlements but also of lower middle income and some middle income settlements as well. So, the city is physically divided along ethnic lines, and in an increasing number of cases, along religious lines as well. Crossing from one ethnically defined neighbourhood to the other is, in many cases, no longer possible. There are also estate agents and touts that arrange for transfer of families who are in a minority in a neighbourhood to neighbourhoods where there own communities live.

Ethnically homogenous settlements exist in many global cities. The only reason why Karachi is unique in its ethnic solidarity is that here the state’s service and justice delivery institutions have become weak and corrupt due to helplessness in the face of an ever-expanding population, and more so due to neglect by an unconcerned and self-indulgent social, bureaucratic and political elite. In most other global cities in the South, service delivery institutions have improved over time.

Today, in Karachi, if a person needs a job, or wants to get his child admitted to a school, wants a domicile certificate, wishes to get an FIR registered, or get a friend released from legal or illegal police custody, he will go to his ethnic organisation or networks. He may also have to pay some amount of money for this service but it is easier and cheaper to do this than go to a state agency. In recent years, it has also become common for these ethnic networks to resolve family and property disputes. And nothing could be more divisive than this.

As a result of the above mentioned realities, Karachi today votes on ethnic lines. By and large, Pakhtoons vote for JUI and ANP. Sindhis and Baloch vote for the PPP, middle class Punjabis vote for the Muslim League and the Urdu speakers for the MQM. Before 1992, this was not so. People, voted along ideological and class lines, although there was an ethnic element in the choice of the ideologies. But then, before 1992, the state’s service delivery structures were still strong even if they had started to decline.

Different ethnic groups today toe their party lines which divides Karachi further. Mohajirs feel that the Talibanisation of Karachi is a real threat and that the Pakhtoons are responsible for it. The fact that there are also Punjabi and Urdu speaking neighbourhoods that are staunchly pro-Talibaan is ignored. Similarly, the Pakhtoons feel that target killing is carried out by the Urdu speakers and is aimed at ousting them from Karachi and taking away their jobs. They feel they are a poor hard-working community which has built Karachi. The fact that they are also powerful entrepreneurs, informal bankers and rich transporters, with deeply entrenched political interests, does not form a part of their rhetoric. Similarly, the Sindhis and Balochis reflect their party lines. They feel that the MQM is responsible for the Karachi conflict so that it can use it to strengthen its negotiating position with the PPP and ANP. What is serious about this situation is that at the local level, there is no communication between these differing points of view.

With this background, we can discuss the issue of land and real estate development. In the last 12 months, 17 estate agents and 3 land rights activists were brutally murdered in Karachi and an unspecified number of estate agents have disappeared. Conversations with estate agents in locations where these killings took place reveal a situation not too different from other global cities such as Mumbai and Seoul, except that in these cities, unlike Karachi, killings are rare.

A research into the Karachi situation shows that before deregulation of the economy as a result of the WTO regime, there was a powerful underground economy based on contraband goods, gold and foreign exchange. This was controlled by “criminal gangs” who had the active support of the rogue elements in the Police and customs. These gangs were subservient to these elements and as such, kept in check. After deregulation, except drugs and alcohol, all other contraband goods became legalised and the nexus between the police, the custom officials and the criminal gangs was no longer effective. The gangs, independent of police and custom officials and with a lot of money and local and foreign connections at their disposal, have gone into land and real estate for which they need the support of an ethnically divided political establishment. In addition, after devolution, local leaders in Sindh, as in the rest of Pakistan, have acquired considerable executive authority.

As a result of these changes and the introduction of new actors in the political and development drama, there has been the emergence of a number of intricate nexus leading to a booming formal and informal real estate business on illegally or coercively occupied land and properties and/or in complete disregard to existing byelaws and zoning regulations. Violence, targeted killings and kidnappings of opponents, rivals and social activists is an essential part of this development process. In addition, this process has completely skewed the land and real estate market and promoted massive speculation. Government agencies in most global cities have responded to these market pressures and made land available for development through landuse conversions. The same has happened in Karachi where major questionable landuse conversions have taken place in the recent past. A lot of studies have appeared on these aspects for Mumbai and Seoul. There is also a lot of information on Karachi but it is unpublished for obvious reasons.

What one gathers from reading between the lines in press reports is that the situation in Lahore is not much different. In addition, according to a number of local activists, many gang leaders are coming forward as Robin Hoods in the place of ethnic networks, as protectors of people. Residents fear that as a result of this, another conflict may be in the offing. The above situation also explains the forced occupation of other people’s property and the illegal bulldozing of poor settlements which are regularly reported in the press.

The land related law and order situation will get much worse, and the gangs much stronger, unless and until we can re-create powerful institutions of governance which are non-ethnic in nature. For this the Sindhi politicians will have to rise above their ethnic vote related interests. They will have to behave like statesmen and not like opportunistic politicians looking for short term gain or for maintaining the status quo. Occasionally, at least as rhetoric, they attempt to do this. However, so far all negotiations and agreements between them have been on the basis of ethnicity which merely strengthens the ethnic divide and makes effective governance difficult. Negotiations have to be based on promoting universal principles of justice, people’s well being and equity. You cannot negotiate from a position of ethnicity alone and have long term peace and equity. The situation in Kyrisgstan should be a lesson to us. The similarities between them and the Karachi situation are disturbing, to say the least.

After the burning of Bolton Market, there appeared to be an understanding among Sindhi politicians, at least from their statements, that the increasing power of the gangs was a threat to the power of the political establishment. It almost seemed that a consensus would develop in favour of supporting the creation and nurturing of genuine institutions related to the planning and monitoring of urban development. However, the enactment of the Sindh High Density Development Board Bill shows that a consensus has emerged but that consensus is all about the political establishment becoming a potential godfather to those currently involved in the land and real estate business at the expense of the citizens of Sindh and the physical and socio-economic environment of its cities.

A fundamental change in the structure of thinking of the political establishment is required if Karachi is to be saved from further chaos. One is not sure as to where this change will come from. But one can hope.

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