Ugly Karachi

KARACHI is becoming an increasingly anarchic, ugly and divided city — but is loved and glorified by its comparatively well-to-do citizens, public intellectuals and those in search of an identity. Loving Karachi is understandable but glorifying it is questionable.

The city has no research and planning agency — a must for any expanding city. Previously, it had one in the form of the KDA Master Plan Group of Offices. Its garbage cannot be lifted because it has no effective local governance system and the agency responsible cannot even pay its workers on time.

Karachi’s infrastructure projects are generally of poor quality; they start crumbling after a couple of years. Most consist of flyovers and underpasses that have failed to solve the city’s traffic problems. Its pedestrian bridges are not used as many of them are at the wrong locations. In any case, the old, the sick and women with children cannot use them.

The list of woes of lower-income Karachiites is endless.

For them, there are zebra crossings, but these cannot be accessed as cars do not stop for pedestrians. Traffic rules are not respected and the ensuing chaos results in violence. The option for women to take up a job of their choice, or one they are qualified for, is limited by their dependence on transport availability.

As a result of recently enacted anti-planning laws, Karachi is now ‘legally’ densifying; the absence of an urban design plan is creating conditions of severe overcrowding. Also, there is no social housing, nor any plans for it. So, unlike previously, an increasing number of families live on the roads and under flyovers.

For the poor, and now also for the lower middle class, needs related to transport, water, land and housing are catered to by an exploitative, unreliable informal sector, while land use is controlled by a powerful developers’ lobby through bribes and coercion, devastating the city.

In 1998, 30 per cent of Karachi’s primary school students studied at government schools. This dropped to 6pc in 2015. Most of these schools, including the 600-plus KMC ones, are on the verge of collapse. Many of them have more teachers than students. For curative health, the vast majority of Karachiites rely on quacks as there is no comprehensive preventive health plan in place.

Karachi is building upwards and registering more than 900 additional vehicles per day. No serious traffic management and engineering plans are in place to accommodate the increasing numbers. Karachi’s firefighting arrangements are also grossly inadequate. Easily manageable fires consume not only buildings but people as well.

The state now has many documentation requirements, including ID cards, B Forms, marriage and divorce certificates and property-related papers. Acquiring these is difficult and time-consuming and so often citizens pay middlemen to facilitate the process. Similarly, acquiring a lease in a notified katchi abadi is only possible by paying the middleman Rs35,000. By paying a bribe you can also purchase a driving licence without passing the test — essentially giving one the licence to kill.

The city has a lot of public space but much of it is not maintained and is often used by drug addicts, for sorting out garbage and for sleeping purposes by the homeless. Karachi has no city museum — a must for schoolchildren if they are to relate to the city as a whole and not just to their environmentally degraded neighbourhoods. Cinemas have also disappeared and the cineplexes are unaffordable for lower-income groups. Most parks require an entrance fee.

Less than one inch of rainfall can flood the city — because elite housing societies continue to en­­croach on the outfalls to the sea, while informal settlements, for lack of options, continue to build homes on drainage channels. Meanwhile, when it rains, a number of people in low-income settlements die of electrocution. This is accepted as normal.

As if this were not enough, citizens have to put up with political processions and rallies that block traffic for hours on end, because of which children miss school, patients die on the way to hospital, and businesses and citizens not only suffer but feel insulted. The list of woes of lower-income Karachiites is endless.

To deal with what has been mentioned here, Karachi needs much more than political promises and self-serving rallies. One-time events and short-term foreign-funded projects are important but they alone cannot overcome the problems of the city which needs new and effective institutions of governance with strong horizontal linkages.

The constraints to achieving this are many but there is no other option if the city is to be made workable for its majority. And without this, peace, given the aspirations of the younger generation of Karachiites of all classes, will remain a distant dream.

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2016

One Comment

  1. Pietro Garau

    The ills described in this brief article are mentioned on a routine basis by well-meaning global or regional studies on urban issues. The striking fact is that they ALL seem to come together in the case of Karachi. But the power relationships that determine this situation seem totally unassailable, and certainly impervious to exhortations to “do good”.
    In fact, the title suggests that the Karachi elites have a tendency to glorify the city, and with it, obviously, the success and unassailability of the policies that determine a steadily worsening situations for the majority of residents. Little is said in the article about this phenomenon, which is again global. In a paper of a few years back titled “La Ville Unique”, a term coined as an urban paraphrase of “Le pensee unique”, I attempted to describe this as the invisibility of the “grey city” to the eyes of the global elites, be they residents or visitors. Granted obvious differences in scale and depth, the rich can carve out in the city areas and paths that spare them the view of poverty and ugliness. I am sure that were I to visit a very rich Karachi resident – something I am not inclined to do – I would certainly benefit from such visual censorship.
    So, as far as those who hold economic and political power can carry on totally unaffected by the disasters surrounding them, nothing will ever happen. The sad reality is that poverty does not trouble today’s cities; it feeds them.
    Specific and isolated projects “to help the poor” will never do the trick. Something will change, perhaps, if and when an educated middle class will emerge willing to live in a city no more disposed to survive as a contradiction to itself.

    Posted January 18, 2017 at 3:28 pm | PermalinkReply

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