The Changing Face of Karachi

With its chaotic traffic, haphazard planning rampant encroachments, the once elegant and sophisticated heart of Karachi has changed dramatically over the years. Where there were once magnificent sandstone structures, there are now commercial plazas, warehouses or buildings deformed beyond recognition. That the area is crying out for conservation goes without saying. But is it possible to carry out such an exercise without understanding the processes at work that have brought about these profound changes?

This Herald special report analyses the changes that have taken place in four sites located in two parts of central Karachi – the Merewether Tower and Lea Market areas in old Karachi and Empress Market and Zaibunissa Street in the Saddar quarter.

Almost all the areas housing the urban architectural heritage Of Pakistan are in an advanced stage of environmental degradation and physical decay, hence the urgent need for area conservation. This degradation, however, is not the result of micro level developments. On the contrary, it is the physical repercussion of national development strategies formulated over the past four decades. Evolving a viable conservation strategy involves not only observing conditions and understanding their causes, but also understanding the process of degradation itself. It is in this process that a number of answers to difficult conservation issues are to be found.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the government of Pakistan took two major decisions that transformed human settlements in this country. One was to introduce green revolution technologies into agricultural production and the other was to industrialise the country. As a result of these key decisions, urban populations multiplied rapidly and there was a massive increase in rural-urban, urban-rural and national-international trade. A parallel development was the mechanisation of transport and the development of both the formal and informal sectors to service the financial and technical requirements of the new technologies. However, markets, warehouses, transport terminals and other services and communication infrastructure to support these developments were not established. Consequently, it was the mandis and terminals in the old city centres that expanded to accommodate the new developments. This expansion engulfed the old residential areas of the cities which housed important cultural and religious institutions. These areas became major job-generating centres for the new migrants from the rural regions. The old city areas were not originally planned to accommodate the function of this new activity. Nor did they possess the necessary infrastructure to support it. The result was physical chaos, social anarchy and administrative helplessness. The scale of this development can he judged by the fact that in the 1960s, an average of 3600 million rupees per year were transferred from the rural to the urban economy in the Punjab alone.

Due to the resulting degradation, the elite left the old cities. Their exit was facilitated by the development of suburban housing estates, which unlike the old towns, could also accommodate their newly acquired automobiles. It soon became unfashionable to live in the old city centre, and with time, increasingly unpleasant to even visit the area due to congestion, pollution and the dominance of what was considered an upstart culture.

The exodus of the elite also meant the exodus of political power from the old city. This in turn considerably reduced the importance of the city in the eyes of the administration and local government. This development weakened social cohesion among the residents and ‘orphaned’ community, religious and cultural organisations. The maintenance and operation of institutional buildings and traditional community facilities increasingly became a burden on the rapidly diminishing resources of the area and on the community members. Many of these buildings have now been demolished to make way for markets and warehouses and others await a similar fate.

An essential part of any conservation plan for these old city centres which hold Pakistan’s architectural heritage is environmental upgrading. This, in many cases, involves the removal of the causes of environmental degradation. And this task requires a city or regional planning exercise, a relocation of commercial and manufacturing activity, a reorganisation of vehicular movements and relocation of transport terminals. In most cases these remedies are seldom possible, not only because of financial and administrative constraints, but also because of opposition by powerful commercial lobbies and mafias whose political and financial power is threatened by these proposals.

The decision to conserve and the development of related legislature is, irrespective of opinions to the contrary, a political act. Its success depends on the political strength of the lobbies pressing for it and the receptiveness of the administrative and legislative agencies involved. This receptiveness is related to the development priorities of these agencies, the educational and class backgrounds of the decision-makers, and more recently, the pressure that can be exerted on these agencies by international loan giving organisations who are playing an increasingly important role in development related decision making in third world countries. The development of criteria for conservation and its application on the other hand, is a local level technical exercise. Given political will and adequate training and experience, professionals and local bodies can, overtime, master this task. However, relating the conservation plan to larger economic and social realities and their physical repercussions, and developing relevant institutional support for it is a far more complex affair. And it is here that almost all conservation efforts fail. The failure is more often than not the result of failing to see conservation as a smaller part of a larger regional and city planning exercise.

Inner City Blues

With its chaotic traffic, the cacophony of power horns, the smog and the grime, Karachi’s once elegant and sophisticated centre has changed beyond recognition over the years. Where there were once magnificent sandstone structures, there are now commercial plazas, warehouses and distinct signs of dereliction. It is difficult to imagine that the area once housed numerous dance halls, billiard rooms, bars, theatres and was the venue for cultural activities such as the May ball.

The Saddar quarter began as Saddar Bazaar in 1839. It was established as a shopping centre to serve the British military camp which was located between the bazaar and the walled city. After the British annexed Karachi in 1843, the camp was dismantled and the residents moved to more permanent accommodation in the north and east of the bazaar. Saddar went on to develop as a commercial area where European officers and their wives could shop in a not too unfamiliar environment and where the latest fashions and products from home were available. After the failure of the 1857 rebellion against British rule, the growth of Saddar gathered speed. It owed this development not only, to the British policy of promoting trade and commerce in the city, but also to the pioneering spirit of the Hindu, Goan, Parsi, and much later, the Muslim business communities which established businesses in the bazaar. They took an active interest in the area’s civic life and established most of its lasting institutions. The Parsi and Goan residential areas were located in the bazaar itself, and the European quarters were situated on its periphery.

At the time of independence, a large number of important institutions, most of them connected to the Church or to the Goan and Parsi communities, were located in Saddar. Schools – some established as early as 1848 – community halls, libraries, gymkhanas with lovely cast iron or timber pavilions, dramatic clubs and churches abounded in the area. Bars and billiard rooms, lrani cafes for the ‘natives’ and posh tea rooms for the ‘gora sahibs’, also flourished.

Saddar remained an area distinct from the hustle and bustle of the walled city – although a horse drawn tramway did link it up with the native quarter in 1885. Pir Ali Mohammad Rashdi, the celebrated Sindhi writer, describing the Saddar of his youth, maintained that no badly dressed man dared enter the bazaar even as late as the 1930s. He speaks of it as “a place of intellectual assembly and sophisticated English style shops”.

After independence, 600,000 refugees moved into Karachi and the city was made the capital of Pakistan. Most refugees to the new capital settled in the cantonment area adjacent to Saddar. While the government servants occupied the old army barracks, the poorer refugees settled in the open spaces between them. The new population included poets, artists, performers and intellectuals. Meanwhile, barracks to accommodate the offices of the new government were also constructed adjacent to the bazaar. With these new developments, although the population of the Saddar Quarter and its adjacent areas increased by over 400 per cent, distances remained small and people walked or cycled to work. Those working at the port made use of the tramway, and although there were only eight buses in Karachi at the time, transportation did not pose a problem.

The refugee influx enriched the social and intellectual life of Saddar. The local population expanded to include bureaucrats, diplomats, writers, artists and politicians. And bookshops, billiard rooms, bars, libraries, cinemas and eating places mushroomed in the area Karachi’s old colleges were already located on Saddar’s periphery and, after independence, a new university was set up at walking distance from the bazaar. The student community made free use of Saddar’s facilities and institutions, interacting with the rest of the population.

By 1965, in less than one square kilometre, Saddar Bazaar housed 37 ‘respectable’ eating places, 9 bars, 11 billiard rooms, 18 bookshops, 7 auditoriums, 4 discotheques and 13 cinemas. Seminars were held by professional institutions, students organised their debates and variety programmes and the government its conferences in the auditoriums and halls of Saddar. And the participants strolled to one of the neighbouring eating places for their meals.

At the centre of this activity stood the Empress Market. It was flanked by small gardens and in the open spaces before its three entrances stood beautiful stone troughs for watering transport animals. The residents of Saddar and the bureaucrats and diplomats living in the neighbouring cantonment areas regularly shopped here, while young people flocked to the market “for fun.”

Saddar’s fortunes started to rise or decline, depending on how one perceives the changes that took place, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. New housing societies were created for government servants situated outside the then municipal limits of the city. And these officers soon moved out of Saddar. Following suit, the men of letters, artists and journalists who frequented the cafes and bookshops also drifted to the suburbs. During the same period, the university was shifted to its present location miles away from the city centre, and Karachi ceased to be the capital of the country.

Between 1958 and 1962, the government moved the refugee population to two townships about 15 miles to the east of Karachi. Most of these refugees worked in the old city, at the Sind Industrial and Trading Estate (SITE), which lies west of Saddar, and at the port. In those days, the only route to these three places of work was through Saddar. Thus, by 1965 over 80,000 persons per day were moving through Saddar en-route to their places of work, and Empress Market had become a major transport junction.

Soon after the establishment of the refugee townships, commercial activity to serve their daily transit movement started to develop in Saddar. Workshops to serve the transport industry, public baths and eating places and the number of hawkers multiplied as the transit population grew. Almost all the new activity was conducted on the pavements or within the open spaces in the bazaar, promoting the process of degradation.

In the late ‘60s, the more ‘affluent residents of the area started to move out, unable to live in the new environment of their quarter. During the same period, the four and five star hotel culture came to Karachi. Social, academic and artistic functions, even of the communities living in Saddar, were held at what is now the Pearl Continental Hotel or at one of the foreign cultural centres which had been established in the city. One of the major reasons for this change was that the physical and social environment in Saddar was no longer regarded as being conducive to holding these events here. Imagine a May Ball at the Goan Union Hall!

The final stage of Saddar‘s degradation came in the ‘70s. The suburbs started to develop their own commercial centres and recreational institutions and the residents no longer travelled to Saddar to shop. Old shops, which had become institutions after over a century of use, closed down or shifted to the suburbs. An economic boom, fired by Gulf money, increased trade and commerce and a consumer culture engulfed the city. Warehouses, wholesale markets and distribution outlets were needed to support this development. And in the absence of new estates to house these facilities and because of its comparatively better road network, infrastructure and changing land-use, Saddar was seen as the ideal place to establish these facilities. In the western and northern part of Saddar warehouses and markets replaced bookshops, eating places and institutional buildings. In the southern part, hotels catering to the new consumer trade replaced old residential apartment houses.

The KDA Master Plan 1974-1985, by increasing plot ratios in the area and permitting high-rise construction, facilitated this process.

In 1977, prohibition was enforced and the bars closed down. A few years later, unable as they were to keep alive without bars, the billiard rooms followed suit. By the mid 1980s, many cinemas had been replaced by plazas and most of Saddar’s old residential areas had been reduced to a transit camp by day and graveyards at night which were inhabited after dark by large numbers of social outcasts and drug addicts. The city’s cultural and recreational centre was dead and nothing had replaced it!

The processes at work that wreaked havoc on Saddar were also at work in other older parts of the city. However, the factors that put pressures on areas such as Lea Market and Merewether Tower are of a somewhat different nature. Lea Market lies in the Napier quarter of the city and Merewether Tower in the Sarai Quarter. Unlike Saddar both these quarters are in close proximity to the old town quarter or the walled city and to the port.

The walled city of Karachi was built in 1729 by Hindu merchants from Karak Bunder after their area had silted up and become inoperative due to heavy floods. The city had two gates: the one facing the sea was called Kharadar or salt gate, and the other facing the seasonal river Lyari to the north, was known as Mithadar or sweet gate. The neighbourhoods where these gates once stood are still known by these names although the wall and gates were demolished by the British in 1849. Kharadar was connected to the port by a road known as Rah-i-Bunder which became a cart of the Bunder Road developed by the British in the 1860s. It is now known as M.A. Jinnah Road. The road divides the Sarai Quarter from the older quarters to its north.

Karachi was built specifically for trading purposes and prospered due to the development of Central Asian trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. After its conquest by the Talpurs in 1794, a sense of security pervaded the fortified town which soon expanded outside its walls. Textile and tanning industries were also set up in the suburbs of the city. One of these suburbs was Lyari, to the north of the old town, where the city’s proletariat, boat hands and port labourers lived. It was also here that most of the tanning works, emitting a foul stench, were located. Between Lyari and Mithadar an open vegetable and fruit market developed in the 1820s. The homes of those who served the market were also located here. After the British conquest of Sindh in 1843, this area was the first to be developed by them. It came to be known as the Napier quarter after Sir Charles Napier the conqueror of Sindh. The open market also expanded until Lea Market, was constructed on its site in 1927.

The old town and its neighbouring quarters were a far cry from Europeanised Saddar. Buying and selling in the markets and shops was carried on in the ‘native’ style. Devali, milads, urs of saints and muharram was celebrated with fervour.

Another suburb of the Old Town which developed in the 1820s was the Kafila Sarai. The sarai was the terminus for the camel caravans of the Afghan traders who were involved in Central Asian trade. In the 1830s, the Rah-e-Bunder was extended till the Sarai by the Talpurs.

Merewether Tower is situated in what, under the British administration, became the sarai quarter, named after the Kafila Sarai.

The quarter was planned in the 1850s and 1860s to accommodate the new business houses, shipping companies, banking facilities and warehouses that were cropping up as a result of an increase in trade and port activities. The link between the port and the cotton and wheat producing hinterland was also through the two main arteries of this quarter, Bunder Road (now known as M.A. Jinnah Road) and McLeod Road (now known as I.I Chundrigar Road). The railway track to the port ran parallel to McLeod Road and the railway marshalling yards were, and still are, in close proximity to it.

By 1947, when Pakistan was created, the Napier and Sarai quarters had become major commercial areas, housing – in addition to the above mentioned facilities – a number of wholesale markets and related warehousing facilities. The old town itself was predominantly residential, except for textile wholesaling, and housed most of the mandirs and dargahs around which the cultural and religious activity of the town and the neighbouring quarters was organised.

While the old town and Napier Quarter housed traders and merchants, the fisherman, labourers at the port and building sites, transport labourers and the industrial proletariat resided in the adjacent Lyari and Machee Miani Quarters. Distances to places of work were small and the tramway provided an easy link to the poll. There were only two transport terminals or major junctions in the whole area, one at Lea Market and the other at Merewether Tower.

The old town and its neighbouring quarters were a far cry from Europeanised Saddar. Away from the main arteries, the streets were winding arid narrow. Buying and selling in the markets and shops was carried on in the ‘native’ style. And although tea houses, bars and billiard rooms were found in these quarters as well, the ambience and the people who frequented them, were very different and far less formal. There were no May-Balls dramas, police bands and Easter parties here. Instead, devali, milads, urs of saints and muharam was celebrated with fervour.

There are a number of factors that have led to the degradation of the old city and its neighbouring districts. The most important factor, however, is related to the development of trade and industry and the resulting increase in port activity with its own requirements.

In 1945 the Karachi port handled 2.77 million tons of cargo. The storage facilities for this cargo were available at the port or at the railway marshalling yards. Except for the transportation of goods to the wholesale markets in the city, almost all cargo was handled by the railways.

However, by 1969 – mainly as a result of industrialisation and the introduction of green revolution technologies – 7.4 million tons of cargo was being handled. By 1984, this figure had risen to 15 million tons or had increased by more than 500 percent since 1945.

Despite this increase, however, storage facilities at the port and marshalling yards did not develop proportionately. To add to the situation, the railway’s capacity to service the needs of the port have actually declined since 1947. Meanwhile, keeping pace with the increase in port activity and with a 2500 percent growth in the city’s population since 1945, the volume of trade in the wholesale markets within the inner city has also increased.

As a result of these factors, large areas of the old town and almost all areas of the Napier and Lyari quarters have been converted into warehouses that serve the needs of the port and the wholesale markets. The old stone residential buildings, usually two to three storeys in height, have been pulled down and replaced by six storey buildings of more or less standard design. The design usually comprises stores on the ground floor, small flats or individual rooms for port or transport related day-wage labourers on the floors above, and perhaps a large apartment for the original owner of the building. This building activity has been promoted by developers who have developed a number of financial and design packages’ with which they approach the local residents.

All bye-laws in the area have been conveniently flouted and the new buildings are not only inadequately lit and badly ventilated, but have defective plumbing and electrification. Many of the original residents have sold their properties and shifted to squatter settlements in North Karachi, claiming that both social and physical conditions are much better in that area than in the inner city.

The port, the expanded wholesale markets, and the storage facilities which developed in the old town and adjoining quarters are today serviced by mechanised vehicles, as is the very busy link between the port and SITE – Karachi’s major industrial area. This entire movement of men and goods, along with the various linkages between the port and Karachi’s hinterland and other industrial areas, takes place through the arteries of the Lyari, Napier and Sarai quarters. In volume this movement grew by 1700 percent between 1953 and 1987 and has been increasing ever since.

The development of mechanised transport also resulted in the setting up of at least two large trucking stations and a major services sector comprising not only workshops, eating places, hotels and spare part manufacturing, but also of prostitution dens, entertainment and drug venues. Much of this activity is carried on through encroachments on public spaces. Rates for the promotion of such encroachments have been institutionalised. In fact, at informal level, the city administration, the property owners and the encroachers themselves all participate in the process and benefit from it.

The process of change described above, except for a few small protected pockets, has worked major social changes in Karachi’s ‘inner city’. For one, it has killed most traditional cultural activity as the vast majority of the new population consists of migrant workers living without their families. This fact helps determine the nature of entertainment, food, shops and attitudes of the area residents. Transporters and the drug mafia are a major economic power in the area and hence, a political force as well. And any anti-drug movements, organised by residents of the area have been suppressed both by the police and other parties with vested interests. In the not too distant past, anti-drug activists have even been murdered. Anti-encroachment drives, moves for collection of user charges, and implementation of traffic rules and regulations have met with a similar fate.

The social changes described above apply only to a certain part of the Sarai quarter. Physical changes also differ in the different parts of this quarter. In the area adjoining McLeod Road and Bunder Road, high-rise office buildings rather than warehouses are being constructed, while in the eastern part of the quarter the old residential areas are still very much intact. However, the main arteries of the quarter do serve as a major conduit of people and cargo to and from the port. In fact, many wholesale markets are situated on these roads.

Social, economic and environmental conditions are all hostile to the operation of an effective area conservation plan at all the four sites discussed. Conservation plans can be realised only if some of the larger issues dealt with above are also tackled alongside.

Living conditions in these areas are clearly unsatisfactory. Investigations reveal that the majority of people who live and work in these areas on a permanent basis are unhappy with the physical and social environment around them. And they have specific demands to bring about a change.

In the Saddar area, most respondents felt that if the traffic through Saddar was eliminated, the area could be rehabilitated. It was also felt that the old institutions of the area were not irretrievably lost and could be revived if environmental conditions permitted.

One proposal was to build a ring road around Saddar. A pedestrian spine from St Patrick’s Cathedral to the Sindh High Court, so as to redirect all through traffic passing through Sadder, was another suggestion. Adequate space for the development and expansion of wholesale markets and warehouses in attractive locations – backed by the necessary infrastructure and easily accessible from the port and highways should also be provided alongside. The rest could be taken care of by a conservation plan.

In the old town and adjoining areas, a number of residents, transporters and traders were interviewed and each group had its own particular complaints and offered a number of solutions. The transporters too were clearly unhappy with working in the inner city. The area is too congested, movement slow and energy consumption high. The traders also complained about storage facilities, especially of the difficulty in serving them through mechanised transport. But the traders have no other alternatives.

The Karachi Master Plan 1974-85 proposed two bye-passes from the port – one each to the two highways that link Karachi with the rest of Pakistan. Karachi’s main industrial areas also lie on these highways. The building of these bye-passes would reduce traffic pressures in the inner city considerably. In fact, if well planned storage facilities and supporting infrastructure including telephone, telex and banking facilities could be provided as well, a large number of inner city traders would be willing to move out to these areas even without other incentives. With this movement, a sizable number of residents would also move out followed by the transport uddas. The release of this pressure would make it possible for the presently besieged inner city communities to breathe once again and rehabilitate what is left of the purana shehar. However, although the bye-passes were proposed in the old Master Plan, the development of wholesale markets, warehousing and related residential and services sector developments on them were not envisaged.

Lobbies of Power:

Powerful lobbies with major economic and political interests are seen influencing Karachi’s planning. But there is no peoples lobby to protect the interest of the city as a whole…

Planning in Karachi, as in all other Pakistan cities, is the domain of bureaucrats. The people themselves or their neighbourhood or city level representatives have little or no say in the matter. However, powerful lobbies with major economic and political interests are seen operating in the city. These lobbies not only ‘influence’ the planning process but also ensure that any aspects of the plan detrimental or not beneficial to their interests remain unimplemented.

One major lobby operating in Karachi consists of the formal sector developers. Their main aim is to keep land and property values high in the city centres since many of them own land and property here. They also influence policies related to land-use and housing finance. It lies in their interest to oppose most conservation plans for Saddar and the inner city and a release of pressure on these areas.

Informal land grabbers are another lobby. They have close though informal links with most development agencies in the city. They are informed of development plans well before they are made public and develop their strategies accordingly. For instance, when the northern and southern bye-passes were planned they made arrangements to illegally occupy the vantage areas on or near them.

The transporters are yet another powerful lobby. They have been known to dictate routes, stops and fares to the public agencies. They have prevented the plying of government transport on certain lucrative routes and made a mockery of traffic laws and of attempts at traffic management by public sector agencies.

Similarly, trade and shopkeepers associations also have a vested interest in the plans promoted by local government. They have in the past successfully prevented certain streets from being declared as one-way streets, and certain others from being declared no-parking streets. In addition, they have engineered changes in the last traffic management plan for Saddar – and these changes were far from being in the public interest.

Lobbying aside, the manner of Karachi’s urbanisation also poses a number of problems. Development precedes planning, and because of the plan’s social inappropriateness as well as the implementing agency’s inability, implementation is not carried out, Informal processes then take over promoting anarchy, administrative helplessness and corruption. It is this climate that makes the drug mafia a major force in Karachi. In fact, many of the formal and informal sector developments are directly financed, if not controlled, by this mafia.

The interests of the various commercial groups in Karachi are protected by their organisations. But, there is no “people’s lobby” in Karachi to protect the interests of the city as a whole and pressurise the government to adopt appropriate development plans. The need for such a lobby is keenly felt by a large number of Karachites who have formed various NGOs. Using the organisation as a platform they try for a dialogue with the powers that be. But again, these NGOs, except for a few are the domain of the upper middle class, having little or no interaction with the public at large. Further, they depend on whimsical donor funding, often foreign, and find it difficult to relate to the various public sector agencies involved in Karachi’s planning and conservancy. The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) is one organisation that can develop into an effective people’s lobby. The KMC council consists of 230 elected councilors, one for about every 40,000 people. Elections are held every four years and the councilors are regularly confronted by their wards, especially in low-income areas, on a whole range of issues. But their habitual response to most demands is that the matter is beyond the KMC’s mandate. This situation is, unfortunately, true.

The planning for Karachi is carried out by the Karachi Development Authority (KDA), a bureaucratic organisation under the provincial government. The KMC has no say in this regard. The KMC council cannot decide on issues related to revenue collection and expenditure, even on matters it has jurisdiction over, without the bureaucracy’s approval.

A large number of Karachiites, especially those who have worked in the environmentally degraded areas of the city, agree that the KMC council should become the government of the city and be allowed to decide planning. With public pressure, revenue and law and order issues, environmental and related conditions would improve over time. This is, of course, provided that the technical and managerial capability and capacity of the KMC is enhanced. This would also give the NGOs and various community groups a chance to play a constructive role in the development of more appropriate city and regional level planning – without which an area conservation exercise can seldom be successful. And even if it were successful, it would be no more than a drop in an expanding ocean of environmental degradation.

One Comment

  1. Donna Fernandes

    Hello Arif Sahb,

    I hope you are doing well. Since feeling homesick, I needed to read this about Saddar where I grew up. I remember my parents telling me about dances at paradise hotel and how intellectually and artistically vibrant of a space this was when we would journey on foot to Somerset street (where my dad grew up and my great grandfather had a shop Philip and Co.) then through Bohri Bazaar, Empress Market and areas around. Being born in the 80s, the place was already in a state of decline and everything documented here ties and summaries those aspects that led to it.

    My warmest regards and best wishes always.

    Posted June 21, 2022 at 5:17 am | PermalinkReply

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