The Lyari Expressway: Citizen’s Concerns and Community Resistance

The Lyari River rises in the foothills of the Kirthar Range. It is a seasonal river and flows only when it rains in its catchment area. Such rains never last for more than ten to twelve days in a year. Four kilometres before reaching the sea, the river used to divide into two. The northern branch entered the sea, as it still does, through the Sandspit back waters and the southern branch used to enter the sea directly through the China Creek, which is the estuary of the river and Karachi’s natural harbour. On the left bank of the southern branch and just on the eastern edge of the natural harbour, the fortified settlement of Karachi (or Kolachi as it was then called) was built in 1729. By the end of the eighteenth century, two working class suburbs developed outside of the walled settlement, on the right bank of the southern branch of the Lyari River. These suburbs were called Lyari and Khadda. Most of their inhabitants were of Makrani origin and had migrated to Karachi due to famine conditions in Makran. Tanneries, salt works (Karachi’s main export items at that time apart from textiles) and graveyards were also located within these suburbs. The southern branch of the River was blocked by the British in the 1890’s since it was eroding the left bank and endangering the buildings of the old town. Thus, these suburbs were integrated into metropolitan Karachi.

Since the 1730’s, Baloch families from Makran were permitted to settle along the right bank of the northern branch of the Lyari River by the Kalhoras. This tradition was continued by the Kalat rulers, the Talpurs and the British. These settlements or goths were also given land on a renewable one-year lease for agriculture and livestock grazing purposes. As a result, over the years, the right bank of the northern branch had a large number of Baloch goths along it with extensive orchards irrigated through wells in the Lyari bed. Most of the Baloch population, however, worked as port labour, grave diggers (they also looked after the cemeteries, as they still do) and in the tanneries and salt works. When Karachi expanded in the nineteenth century, they worked as building site labour and also acquired skills in stone masonry and carpentry. They rightfully claim that their ancestors built modern Karachi. In addition to the Baloch goths and their mosques, graveyards and Eidgahs, Hindu cremation sites, which are still in use, were also established on the right bank of the northern branch as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century.

After the blocking of the southern branch of the Lyari, the northern branch became the boundary of the city to the north. The area between it and the old town became the working class district which also housed small scale manufacturing and cemeteries. This area, after the Devolution Plan of 2001, is known as Lyari Town. Colonial Karachi developed to the south of the old town and contained the major wholesale markets of the city, port related warehousing and business houses, civic institutions and residential areas for the indigenous merchant classes. This was the situation at the time of partition.

Partition changed Karachi. From a city of 450,000 in 1947 it increased to a city of 1.137 million in 1951. This was because of an influx of migrants from India. There was also an exodus of Hindus and Sikhs as a result of which the Hindu population decreased from 51 per cent in 1941 to 2 per cent in 1951. Since the migrants were Urdu speaking, the Urdu speaking population increased from 6.3 per cent to 50 per cent during the same period. Meanwhile, the Sindhi speaking population decreased from 61.2 per cent to 8.6 per cent1. Most of the migrants settled in the properties vacated by the Hindus and Sikhs in the old town and its suburbs. They also occupied all available open spaces and public buildings in the city from where they were shifted to the lands adjacent to the Baloch goths on the right bank of the Lyari River. Thus, a number of informal Mohajir settlements developed adjacent to the Baloch goths and on land that the Baloch goths used to acquire for agricultural and grazing purposes through yearly leases from the government. In the fifties, formally planned settlements were built on the right bank of the river and the orchards and grazing lands disappeared. The graveyards, however, remained.

As Karachi’s population expanded, more migrants settled along the Lyari River. The Mianwali migrants came in the 1950’s along with their camels which provided transport for port related cargo. Eventually, they became truck owners and established their garages, workshops and warehouses adjacent to their settlements. In the 1960’s communities displaced as a result of the building of the Tarbela Dam also settled along the Lyari River. Their settlement is called Tarbela Colony. Pathans, Hazarawals and Afghans settled on the right bank at Sohrab Goth between 1980 and 1995. Almost all of them are involved in the transport trade. Sarais, Katchis and Bengalis are the latest arrivals. Most of them work as domestic servants in the neighbouring middle income settlements, in the garbage recycling business or as day wage labour in the neighbouring godowns and markets.

The wholesale markets and warehousing in the old town and its colonial extensions expanded rapidly in the 1970’s and 1980’s due to an increase in population and industrial activities in Karachi and in port activity. The main markets that expanded were the Dhan Mandi, chemical market and paper market. Metal related manufacturing and garbage recycling (most of it in the informal sector) also established itself in these areas and in what today constitutes Lyari Town. This expansion of industrial and wholesaling activity, along with its transport and warehousing related needs, has caused massive congestion and environmental degradation. Densities in some of the neighbourhoods are as high at eight thousand persons per hectare and air and noise pollution levels are well above the National Environmental Quality Standards2. This process of degradation has forced the wealthier residents to move to the newly planned areas of the city. As space for the development of warehousing and small scale informal industrial activity was limited, it spilled over into the Lyari Corridor and into the river bed itself. Much of the labour that worked in these establishments built shacks in the river bed by bribing the police and continued to live in the shacks by paying bhatta to police touts and musclemen.

The operators of the wholesale markets and informal manufacturing have constantly petitioned the government agencies for shifting them to areas that are easily accessible by rail and/or road transport and where badly needed space for their planned growth is possible. Residents of these areas have also asked for the shifting of these functions as this would improve environmental conditions and reduce congestion.

The Baloch goths have ownership papers going back to the early British period. In the case of Ilyas Goth, the ownership papers date to the Talpur period. These goths did not feel insecure and as such they have invested in a big way in building their homes and acquiring infrastructure. This investment was made possible because of migration to Masqat in the 1970’s. Makranis were given a preference by the Masqat government because of its long association with the Makran Coast. A sizeable proportion of the population of these goths is now employed in running businesses and in government jobs. They have developed urban middle class values and aspirations. Successive governments have also supported the Lyari goths in acquiring water, electricity, sanitation, schools, health centres, telephones and gas lines. Most of the non-Baloch settlements that are above the flood line have also been declared as katchi abadi by the municipal authorities over the last two decades. Almost all of them have built their homes and acquired physical and social sector infrastructure. In addition, the goths and the katchi abadi have formed community organisations and got them registered. Through these organisations, they, like all other Karachi communities, have promoted their claims with government agencies and politicians and guarded their gains.

The political affiliations of the Lyari Corridor settlements vary. The Baloch settlements invariably vote for the Pakistan Peoples Party. However, they contain a sizeable number of left wing activists who have supported Baloch nationalist parties and have close links through the Baloch Ittehad Foundation (BIF) with other Baloch communities and political groupings throughout Pakistan. The Mohajir settlements by and large vote for the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) (formally the Mohajir Quami Movement). The Mianwali Colony has links both with the Jamiat-ul-Islam and the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Pakistan. The Pakhtoon communities support the Awami National Party and a minority among them are active members of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam. The groups living in the river bed or in the non-notified katchi abadi are not effectively organised politically or socially.

  1. Gov­ern­ment of Pak­istan; Pop­u­la­tion Cen­sus Reports
  2. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg; Sta­tus Paper on Urban­iza­tion of Sindh: pre­pared for the IUCN, 2004

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  1. […] the 1890s, the river used to split into two branches. One of these, the northern branch, flowed into the Sandspit waters (located between the Hawke’s […]

  2. […] the 1890s, the river used to split into two branches. One of these, the northern branch, flowed into the Sandspit waters (located between the Hawke’s […]

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