The Social and Demographic Change in Karachi

The new katchi abadis, however, are different. They have yet to consolidate and acquire facilities. Their leadership still consists of land grabbers and middlemen, income levels are low and social cohesion is missing. Most of the population here is first generation migrant and the female population is very small as compared to the male. In many of the inner city settlements too, conditions have changed in the inter-census years. Wholesale markets have expanded along with the services sector to cargo transport activities, families have moved out, day-wage labour has moved in. Much of this labour is also seasonal. As a result of these changes, large areas have become slums in sociological terms, societies without structure and cohesion. It is here that most of Karachi’s rapidly expanding underclass lives, an underclass whose aspirations are to become like the older katchi abadis but the means, except for a small few are simply not there.

All these conflicting fragments of Karachi come together in Gulshan-i-Iqbal and as such its lifestyle is imitated in other settlements (except of the elite) and its young men and women are role models for others. Here khokas co-exist with foreign food chain outlets, katchi abadis with planned apartment complexes; real estate agencies and car showrooms with supposedly clandestine betting shops and drug outlets; a fast expanding flat culture with old goths struggling for survival and succeeding. And all these elements share a common space and vocabulary.

The middle and lower middle income areas of Karachi and the older katchi abadis have a number of things in common which are trickling through to other settlements and becoming the most important parts of Karachi culture. One is cable television. It is now universal in these areas. It is in people’s homes, in barbershops, in eating places catering to all classes, even in the waiting rooms of private clinics. Indian films and western pop is now a part of family life except for the religious and conservative minority. This minority is also increasing in number though not in percentage terms. It is perhaps because of the cable and all that goes with it, that beauty parlours, run by women for women, have cropped up in a big way all over these middle and lower middle income settlements. The beautification items on the menu sometimes contain the names of Indian film actresses. In an increasing number of parlours, a waiting room for men is being provided! The cable TV is also changing lifestyles. Cooking classes have opened up where the preparation of Chinese and Thai dishes is taught to women and also small schools for interior and flower decoration for women are increasing. Eating out, especially non-Pakistani food, is something to look forward to and restaurants are full to capacity, many with young couples and families, especially in the first weak of the month after salaries have been paid. The number of women managed and operated retail outlets are also increasing. All this is a major social revolution and what its effects on family life and values, and hence on society are, and are going to be, needs to be studied, analysed and catered to by the planning agencies in the city.

The other most important change is related to information technology. All the lower middle income settlements and older katchi abadis have a large number of computer training centres in them, many dealing with programming as well. Karachites have understood the economic and job potential of information technology and as such these centres are full of young men and women students. Another important factor is the mushrooming of private schools and tuition centres advertising the teaching of English and the fact that almost all of them are co-educational.

The above directions point to the fact that the new Karachites are fiercely upwardly mobile and are anxious to become a part of the international global culture. Their dress patterns and bearing have changed over the last decade and a half to reflect these new aspirations and they have also become addicted to FM 100 which represents their culture. However, their incomes are low as compared to their aspirations and that is because they live in an economy plagued with recession and inflation. To overcome this problem, it has become necessary for women to work and hence the need for their education and acquisition of skills. Families now look for educated and or skilled women as wives for their sons and it is not a coincidence that the Karachi university today contains more female than male students. Most lower-middle income employed males, and also working class ones, do an extra job or a business of some sort. After office hours, they work in an estate agency, as life insurance salesmen, give tuitions, run a small business or a taxi. In the lower income areas, homes are being turned into workshops and businesses. Garment stitching, flower making, fruit packaging, cardboard box making, gas kit manufacturing, are some of the things that families do collectively to beat inflation and recession, educate their children, and acquire the new electronic gadgets that have become a necessity for their lives.

In spite of this extra work and family businesses, the economic and lifestyle aspirations of the young Karachites cannot be met. This is because of a clash between their aspirations and the conservative and puritanical aspects of our state culture. The other is corruption and nepotism. This upwardly mobile population of young people has to pay a bribe or have connections to get a job, a commission, or contract. They have no access to the corridors of power and no capital. Thus, the city is full of young people trying desperately to go abroad (at any cost) or to attach themselves to “progressive” political groups that can give them access to the means for fulfilling their aspirations. Unfortunately, these are perhaps the brightest of the younger generation and definitely with the most initiative. Under different circumstances, they would be an asset to their society, role models for promoting progress and social justice.

Entertainment and recreation are an essential part of the nature of urban society described in the preceding paragraphs. At the city and larger suburban level, cinemas catered to this requirement for entire families. However, the age of the cinema in Karachi is dead and most of them have ceased to exist. What is more important today is recreation at the neighbourhood level. In the lower and lower middle income settlements, people play drafts and cards on the cross roads under street lights and often pay the police bhatta so that they are not harassed. There are carom and snooker clubs and illegal video halls that people frequent, and social welfare organisations that exist in almost every Karachi neighbourhood (and are always run by younger people), often operate reading rooms and lending libraries. Sports clubs also exist at the neighbourhood level and cricket and football matches between different teams and neighbourhoods, is a common thing. However, most of this activity is for men only. Women do participate sometime as spectators in sports and also as participants, in mushairas, religious functions and in rare cases where society permits (this is increasing) in musical performances. Many youth organisations have tried to initiate theatre and music groups but this has met with limited success in the absence of state support, difficulties in being permitted by the establishment to perform at a public place, and due to being frowned upon by the elders in the neighbourhood. But what will happen in the next 10 years when part of this generation becomes the elders and the state?

However, one thing that Karachi families and young groups do is to go out. On Sundays, the beaches in and around the city, as far as Gadani, are full of families and groups from the lower and lower middle income areas of the city. They get to these beaches and to other picturesque locations such as Kalri and Haleji Lakes, by hiring Suzukis. They picnic and listen to loud Indian film songs, (many dance as well) and enjoy themselves (they also leave behind an enormous amount of solid waste!). They invade the parks and in certain locations, such as the Hill Park in PECHS, the Pakhtoons perform the Khattak every Sunday and have wrestling competitions. On occasions such as Eid, Bakra Eid, and long weekends whenever they happen, places like Allauddin Park and Clifton Funland are full to capacity. Large number of families, men and women, also get together to visit Mazars in Karachi and the Sindh interior for the Urs of Pirs. This is both a religious event and an outing.

The importance of the neighbourhood, inadequate planning and facilities, and land grabbing have led to the formation of neighbourhood groups that struggle to protect parks and playgrounds from encroachment, lobby for and even finance and build infrastructure, and invest in the development of social facilities. These groups are becoming an important factor in the development of the city and their leadership consists of entries of young men and in a few cases of young women as well.

The younger generation (15 to 24 years) of the middle and lower middle income class Karachite and those that imitate them constitute the single largest group in the city, apart from those below 15. This generation is suave, worldly, upwardly mobile and quick to cease any opportunity. They are in love with anything new and contemporary and not burdened with the ethical values of their parents. These qualities are both their strengths and weakness. What is important for the future of the city is not so much the present social profile of this group but the trends within it. What handicaps this generation (and as such Karachi as a whole) is a retrogressive state culture, difficulties in fulfilling their desires because of nepotism and corruption, and the terrible physical and administrative state of urban services and civic agencies. If the state could address these issues and be supportive of the trends, this generation would make Karachi blossom, with or without an interested elite.

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