The Informal City


Karachi is a typical Third World Asian city with a populist political culture. About 50 per cent of the city consists of informal settlements created by the illegal subdivision of state land by middlemen. An additional 20 per cent of the population lives in formally planned settlements who have built their homes informally through financial and technical support of small contractors. They have also acquired their infrastructure informally through “self-help”.

The city requires 79,000 housing units per year. However, an average of about 26,000 housing units per year have been produced through formal processes over the last 5 years. The rest of the demand has been met through informal and illegal subdivision of state land or through densification of existing homes and settlements. As such, the informal settlements in Karachi expand at the rate of 9 per cent per year against a total urban growth of 4.2 per cent per year. Due to the support given to the housing process by informal contractors, the housing stock in the informal settlements in Karachi has improved considerably between 1969 and 19861.  This work of the informal sector in housing and land delivery has so far not been integrated into official planning and nor has it been supported. Every plan over the last 45 years has attempted to curtail or finish off the development of katchi abadis and every plan has failed to do so.

A survey of 136 Karachi katchi abadis was carried out by the Orangi Pilot Project. These katchi abadis have a total of 79,426 houses in 8,479 lanes in them. 81.6 per cent of these lanes have built sewer lines at their own cost and over 90 per cent of the homes have linked themselves illegally to government water supply systems. The people and their councilors had invested over 203 million rupees (US$ 3.4 million) in this work. However, this work is never integrated into official sewage and water supply systems being planned and implemented under various programmes which are supported by international loans. If they were, the projects would be a fraction of their present costs; they would be completed in a fraction of the time it takes to complete them now; and the poor, instead of the contractors and consultants would be their beneficiaries.

The informal sector also plays a very important role in the provision of transport in Karachi. 72 per cent of Karachi’s commuting public uses 13,500 mini buses. These mini buses have been purchased by individual operators with loans from the informal sector. The operator pays for them in installments over a three to four year period. The payment he makes is about three to four times the actual cost of the bus. So far the operators have paid over 27 billion rupees (US$ 450 million) for buses whose actual cost is less than 12 billion rupees (US$ 200 million). These buses operate on about 750 kilometers of roads. There are no bus terminals, depots or workshops for them and the roads serve these purposes causing huge traffic problems. Government plans never try to improve these services or to integrate them appropriately in city transportation planning. It is worth noting here that a recent plan for a mass transit system for Karachi is going to cost over 39 billion rupees (US$ 650 million) for a 13 kilometer light rail2.

Karachi generates about 6,000 tons of solid waste every day. About 2,600 tons of this is separated and recycled through informal processes at over 400 recycling units. The yearly turn over of these units is 1.2 billion rupees (US$ 20 million) and they provide employment to over 40,000 families. Solid waste management plans of the local government not only totally ignore this reality, but actively work to destroy it.

The most important role of the informal sector in Karachi is in job generation. According to the Karachi Master Plan 2000, just over 76 per cent of the population of Karachi works in the informal sector. In 1972 this figure was 66 per cent. Informal sector business houses and manufacturing units are mostly located in informal settlements or in the formal areas of the inner city and port. Surveys of the informal settlements of Orangi (carried out by the OPP) which have a population of one million plus, show that there are 42,000 small workshops and businesses in the settlements which employ about 150,000 people or over 50 per cent of the work force. Because of this, almost 68 per cent of Orangi residents work within their homes or walk or cycle to their work places. No formal sector loans are available to these informal units with the result that they cannot expand their businesses and generate more jobs and better incomes. However, it is because of these informal job and income providers that Karachi’s class complexion has changed over the last few decades and the lower middle class has become the dominant group3.

Similarly surveys of Orangi show that there are over 400 private clinics in Orangi and only 18 government and formal sector health facilities. In addition, there are only 72 government schools and over 700 private schools, most of them set up initially as informal ones. Yet, there are no government programmes for supporting private health facilities or using them for preventive health purposes; or for supporting the creation and operation of private schools through teacher’s training, loans for physical improvements, or development of appropriate curriculum.

Karachi’s port activity in 1951 was 2.8 million tons per year and 96 per cent of it was by rail road. The entire storage capacity for this activity was available at the Karachi Port Trust storage terminals. In 1991, this port activity was 26 million tons and 78 per cent of it was by road. Formal sector storage facilities could only accommodate 50 per cent of the need4. The rest of the need, both for warehousing and cargo terminals, have been fulfilled by informal arrangements in the old city where old building have been torn down and replaced by warehousing on the ground floor and male only labour dormitories above.

The most serious problem in Karachi however, is the rapid consumption of all land for commercial development through a powerful politician-bureaucrat-developer nexus. Even historic buildings of considerable cultural importance are being demolished illegally and being replaced by commercial complexes by this nexus. This is denying the city space for much needed infrastructure and for low income housing. It is also denying the city space for recreation and community and cultural activities. Even in the informal settlements open spaces are being occupied and there is a constant struggle between informal settlement residents and land developers to present this from happening. In this struggle, many lives have also been lost. The main problem that communities have in protecting open spaces is the absence of access to land-use plans, land ownership papers, corridors of power and to a system of justice in the courts of law. Connected to the land issue is the promotion of grandiose projects consisting of expressways and mass transit systems that displace people and do not build on what already exists or on what people are doing. It seems that Karachi’s planners and its politicians consider Karachi’s needs as only commercial and residential and that too for the income groups who can pay for them at inflated prices.

In recent years, a number of Karachi professionals and middle class citizens have come together to struggle against what they call “the land mafia” and against insensitive government projects that do not solve the problems of the city. In this struggle, their main support comes from the informal city consisting of community activists from informal settlements and the informal service providers. Where this struggle has been aided by professionals and scientific research, there has been considerable success against deeply entrenched vested interests5.

Two organisations, both NGOs, have had a considerable impact on government thinking (if not policy) in Karachi. These are the Urban Resource Centre (URC) and the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). The Urban Resource Centre does research on Karachi’s problems with the involvement of the informal city actors and thus, this research has a strong populist bias. It has created a space to share this research through forums with community representatives, informal sector service providers, professional and academic institutions, and government planners and bureaucrats. This has resulted in a understanding on how the city really functions and the press has taken up these issues (for profile of URC see Appendix 1).

The Orangi Pilot Project on the other hand, carries out research on the processes in informal settlements and tries to understand who-does-what-and-how and who-gets-what in the process. It also identifies constraints and potentials in the process and supports the work of the people and the informal entrepreneurs through technical advice, credit (no grants) and managerial advice. As a result, its work has improved environmental conditions in informal settlements and created a more equitable relationship between government agencies and communities on the one hand and between small entrepreneurs and loan-sharks and formal sector contractors on the other hand (for profile of OPP see Appendix 2).

  1. According to the Karachi Master Plan 2000, in 1970, 17.62 per cent of the Karachi housing stock of 490,000 houses was of a non-permanent nature. In 1986, 8.4 per cent out of just over one million houses was a non-permanent nature.
  2. Figures provided by the Urban Resource Centre, Karachi, 1997.
  3. According to the Karachi Master Plan 2000, 14.42 per cent of Karachi’s 51,000 households in 1973 were classified as the lower middle income group. In 1989, 31.4 per cent of Karachi’s 1.6 million households belonged to this group.
  4. Figures provided by the Urban Resource Centre, Karachi, 1997.
  5. In Karachi, the Lyari Expressway Project, which was going to displace 125,000 households has been shelved as a result of community-NGO efforts.

One Comment

  1. you are legend bro. your research proved the only way to get my thesis done. i am from UET lahore. thanks again bro. i cant leave this site without thanking you.

    Posted December 8, 2019 at 3:02 am | PermalinkReply

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