Grand Seminar on Mega-Cities

My topic is an Asian overview of patterns of violence with special focus on Karachi. I am not a social scientist nor have I ever done any research on violence. However, I have in the last 25 years worked with people in government plans and searched for alternative planning processes. What I am going to say is based on what I have observed and analyzed and, indirectly, it relates to violence.

The causes of the violence in Karachi are very similar to those of violence in other Asian cities. However, there are some important differences. First let us look at the common causes and then the aspects that are peculiar to this city. Most Asian megacities have grown so fast that the civic agencies responsible for the planning, maintenance, and operations have not been able to cater to their growth requirements. Planning agencies have not been able to provide land for shelter, transport, technical assistance, credit for business housing and infrastructure, security of property and person especially to low income communities. What they have been able to offer is on too small a scale, and almost always unaffordable to the poor.

Thus, the physical economic needs of the poor have been fulfilled by the so called informal sector. This form of sector originated in Karachi in the mid-fifties with enterprising and corrupt government officials supporting toughs and middlemen in servicing the shelter and related needs of poor communities. However, as the demand for such services increased, and they started to generate large profits, the relationship between corrupt officialdom and the informal sector entrepreneurs changed.

With the passage of time, the government agencies became the employees of the middlemen, and a new group of financiers emerged to support the ever increasing activities of these informal entrepreneurs. A similar process has been documented for almost all Asian megacities. The process of development has resulted in the creation of squatter colonies, slum landlords, loan sharks, protection money extortion and the institutionalization of an informal system of support from government agencies and officials to all such activities. These activities cannot take place without violence and a continuous attempt by the Mafia that have evolved to keep conditions as they are. In addition, these activities and the processes of protecting them cannot take place without bullying and without defying existing laws and regulations of governments.

Karachi has been lucky as compared to other Asian cities in the sense that it had a lot of land and a lot of resources that other cities did not have as a result of which, environmental conditions in low income settlements in Karachi had been much better that most Asian cities. However, 50% of the city today lives in informal settlements that are semi-serviced and these settlements are increasing at the rate of 9% every year against an urban growth rate of about 4.2%. We cannot be sure because we do not have a census, but this is what it is supposed to be. Therefore, because of the availability of land, there were no slum landlords in Karachi. There was no mass bulldozing of settlements. However, over the last 10 years these trends have changed and we do have slum landlords and they are increasing as the availability of land is decreasing.

In all megacities, land has become a major issue and in the past decade, real estate prices have shot up. So have the demands for speculative housing for the elite commercial buildings, tourist and industrial complexes. And with the liberalization and privatization process, the demand is going to increase considerably. Much of the land for these purposes is acquired by bulldozing existing low income settlements and illegally using the coercive arm of the state for this purpose.

Studies carried out for various Asian cities suggest a nexus between the police, government officials and the Mafia in the process. Studies show that no more than 20% of the displaced persons from these settlements find a place to live in again and the displacement is not in thousands but in hundreds of thousands of people. And it is also been seen by studies carried out by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights in the case of Korea and Bangkok that a large number of people who have taken to crime or who have joined Mafia belong to those sections of the population who have been uprooted from their homes.

Similarly, various land re-allocations carried out by governments in major Asian cities have dislodged an even larger number of people than the illegal bulldozing of settlements and they have managed to settle no more than 28% of the people that are dislodged.

The Mafia and the real estate developers in Karachi have not only established what is known as a joint venture between government officials and themselves, but they have also come to an understanding between politicians over time. It is well known that the election campaign of all major Asian cities, and Karachi is no exception, is funded by the Mafia and the real estate developers. In recent years, it is these Mafia and real estate developers that have become members of parliament and provincial assemblies. A recent story reported in the Indian press, quoted in Dawn, stated that out of 425 members of parliament in India 180 had criminal records. And similar, attempts have been made to study Pakistani politicians and I think we will have the results in the near future and hopefully they will be published.

With the involvement of politicians in the government-Mafia joint ventures, the law has become a mockery and so has much of the planning and implementation process for city development. The needs of a city, except for its affluent area, become secondary to powerful commercial interests. And poor communities that are not organized or do not have access to the corridors of power become hostages of this alliance. Land meant for the poor is grabbed and plans and master plans developed by the state are sabotaged by these powerful lobbies. As the populations of the urban poor increase, the role of the Mafia and the development politics also increase. In many Asian cities such as Karachi and Manila, they finance and control the private sector with the help of their government collaborators. Karachi’s 13,500 minibuses have been funded by a few finances and half of them have no route permits or registration and they obey no rules or regulations because of the nexus with the police in this entire activity.

One can go on in this, describing all that has happened and is happening in explaining these linkages. However, there is a close link between drug money and most Mafia activity in almost all Asian cities. This has again been explained in a number of publications. In the case of Karachi, there have been news item that have categorically stated that anti-drug activists been arrested by the police and have also been shot by them. The links of drug money with various mafia and lobbies have been explored quite convincingly by the press.

The situation described above has a disastrous effect on the conditions in low income settlement where people are unorganized. There is a difference between where they are organized and unorganized. In addition, two factors make them most susceptible and vulnerable to violence. One is that the majority of the residents of low income communities are now second, and in many cases, third generation city dwellers. Their links with their rural backgrounds have either broken or are in the process of breaking. Parental controls have become weak and they search for new aspirations, new linkages, and for new institutions to replace their own community ones that are dead and finished. And in this they invariably look towards state institutions and these state institutions cannot be accessed by them in any way. That is one factor.

Unlike their parents, they are not pioneers; they want to belong to the city. They want to belong to the city’s culture. They want to belong to the main stream of the political life and they wish to play a role in it. Not having been able to establish this connection, this link, there is a sense of alienation that takes place and the whole process that I have described above not only increases this sense of alienation but also inculcates the sense of rebellion.

The other factor is the absence of jobs. According to the Karachi MASTER DEVELOPMENT PLAN 2000, unemployment in Karachi in 1989 was 12.8% and 1.1 million jobs are required in the next 5 years to keep unemployment at that level. Investigations suggest that actually the number of jobs in the formal sector have actually declined rather than increased. The other factor that has to be borne in mind is that 75% of all jobs in Karachi are generated by the informal sector. This is again a 1989 figure. A 1974 figure said that 58% of the jobs generated in Karachi were by the informal sector so one can see that the strength and the meaning of it is obvious.

If one relates it to what I have said earlier, these are conditions that exist in almost all cities. In cities where state institutions have been completely eroded and political divisions have not been politicized, violence and crime have not become an inherent part of government agencies. As such, it is contained; there is a level of containment.

However, this is not so in Karachi and for this I shall give two reasons. One is that Karachi’s ethnic composition changed suddenly between 1947 and 1951. During this period, there was a major influx of Urdu speaking refugees from India which changed the language of the city and changed certain aspects of its culture. Between 1947 and 1985, these immigrants have supported the federal establishment and those political parties that wanted to establish a strong center, although this conflicted with the aspirations of the Sindhis who were a majority in the province. In this lies the origin of the rural-urban division in Sindh which has influenced the politics of the province in general and of Karachi in particular.

The rural areas have a majority in the provincial assembly and the Karachiites feel that their representatives have little or no interest in understanding the major issues of the city. In addition, in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, there was an influx of people from the NWFP and central Punjab and more recently from the Saraiki areas. In percentage terms the Muhajir (as the immigrants from India call themselves) population has diminished over time and continues to do so.

There are these different groupings, if there was a larger national consensus, if there was a political party which cultural bridged them, or there was a space for a dialogue, then maybe these divisions would not have become so sharp. However, political opportunism, suppression of democratic institutions by successive governments and the absence of a space for a continuous dialogue have created sharp political divisions on ethnic grounds. Those opposed to these divisions are unfortunately no longer in the mainstream of politics.

The other factor which pertains more to Karachi and is rare in other cities is the way these divisions have been further perpetuated. The raw material for this was already there, but Karachi’s chaos has greatly increased in the last decade and a half. And the present sense of helplessness that the administration feels in dealing with the crisis is the result of what happened to this city during the ‘80s. With the Afghan war, Karachi became the regional headquarters of the drug and arms Mafia. This Mafia quickly absorbed the older Mafia by becoming their godfather and established a major stake in the politics and in the economy.

This Mafia was heavily patronized by those in power. During the same period, the government of the day armed and financed all extremist political, religious, and ethnic groups in the city which had so far existed on the fringes of political life. And this was done to suppress united and organized dissent against it and to remain in power. In addition, political loyalties were purchased by jobs and gifts and if that did not work, through coercion and violence. This phenomenon was nothing new to Karachi and Pakistan, but in the ‘80s this process was institutionalized and began to dominate every aspect of life in the metropolis.

In the process, a culture of political violence and ruthless manipulation was consolidated, and Karachi’s administration and civic agencies became its promoters and supporters. Officials and agencies in many cases were left with responsibilities without effective authority. Unfortunately, even after the end of martial law, this process was continued and not only the Karachi administration, but all the political actors in the Karachi drama, irrespective of their pretensions, have continued to play their roles according to the rules that were developed in the decade of the ‘80s.

There are other factors also that have added to Karachi’s problems: the absence of entertainment, the absence of culture, the noise, the pollution, the environmental factors but they are very much a part of this whole scenario that I have painted. The result of the situation described above is a fragmentation of society, ineffective state agencies, political parties that have either consciously on unconsciously, sought the support of the underworld or belong to it, and an underworld that controls the political and administrative system of the city.

However, I would like to end on a optimistic note. Wherever communities have organized themselves to tackle the problems that they face, they are able to increasingly overcome the repercussions of the conditions I have described. Such communities, especially in the low income areas, are increasing in number every day and this, in many cases, is a cause of increased violence.

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