“What kind of happiness do you want to see in us? We smile not for a social reason, we smile to express our genuine happiness. Happiness for you may be a set of valuables and a sellable proposition but for us it is about relationships and affection.
“When all you have is poverty and destitution with no hopes for any better, you cannot smile in desperation, you can only be taken aback by the lies and deceptions of those who come to us once in five years for a vote. They never return to us then and their false promises of change take their toll on our lives.
“We have had enough broken promises from politicians, change-makers and social workers and when you come to us with a promise we have all the reason to laugh at you.”
Wisdom oozes out from the words of a poor man in the narrow and crummy streets of a lower-class and near-slum locality in Karachi. The anonymous gentleman runs a small grocery store in a poverty-ridden neighbourhood adjacent to a business hub surrounded by skyscrapers in the city centre. He is among those few wise people who strive to survive in despair far from the limelight of our flamboyant corporate media. These scenes of extreme poverty and wretchedness are not the only story of Karachi though. This metropolis has also stories of growing islands of abundance and riches which in turn create a sharp and visible socioeconomic divide.
The inclusive economic and social culture of this mega city is being replaced by a divided, atomised and exclusionary social life, with opulence and poverty living together but not on talking terms. This rising disparity has all the potential to transform Karachi into an ideal neoliberal mega city with the advent of global private investments if CPEC works well. There is no long-term urban planning in place to cope with the impending challenges of vertical economic growth, exclusion, disparity and deteriorating quality of life of growing poverty. The magnificence of towers of prosperity is overshadowed by the vertical slums of poverty with worsening conditions of basic civic amenities.
From the expensive vantage point of your five-star hotel’s window, all you can see is dispossession, plight, poverty, wretchedness and callous disparity in the largest metropolis of the country. If you happen to visit Karachi, all you appreciate is the resilience of city-dwellers who were able to cope with the longstanding economic woes and political turmoil for almost four decades. Karachiites have mastered the art of survival and perhaps are one of the most resilient people on earth. This metropolis has gone through one of the worst times of its history in the recent past and some people believe that Karachi is in its recuperation phase – but what is not returning to normal is its inclusive economic and social life.
The outcome of conflict is a divided urban society on ethnic, sectarian and economic lines. The ethnic and sectarian divide in Karachi was politically orchestrated but it has destroyed the pluralistic culture and inclusive economic life of this mega city. Karachi was once the emblem of national unity, a city where different ethnic groups lived together in peace and harmony, driven by their collective economic necessity. The identity politics that started to reshape the political and economic landscape of Karachi in the 1980s was detrimental to industrial growth and inclusive development when the city emerged as a hotbed of political conflicts on ethnic lines.
The paradox of identity politics to claim equitable access to more resources actually led to a sharp decline in the industrial and economic growth of Karachi. Karachi constituted 70 percent of share in the national economy but its share gradually declined with the process of de-industrialisation and the protracted ethnic conflict. Ethnic political groups in Karachi accuse the state of conspiring to de-industrialise Karachi but in reality these very political forces became the key players to trigger this economic decline. A divided and conflict-ridden society resulted in capital flight and investors had to flee this hitherto national industrial hub to secure their money. Opulence and poverty reside side by side with increasing disparity between the rich and the poor in Karachi. The once dynamic middle class of the city is now disappearing or being pushed into poverty.
A few yards away from the cluttering prosperity of the chain of five-star hotels – the usual abodes of our insensitive and supercilious affluent class – there exists a sea of teeming poor whose miseries never come to an end. You cannot evade the scenes of deprivation of the poor masses toiling and sweating for a few bucks in the narrow and dirty streets of Hijrat Colony in the Civil Lines area. This is the political constituency of the president of the country whose political verbiage of change has, perhaps, not reached his own constituency yet.
There is a simmering sense of outrage against the promises of change which are not being materialised. This is, however, not to say that living conditions have deteriorated under the current government; the decline and deterioration of the social and economic life of Karachi has a history of decades. But what is critical for the current government is to act on its promises of change beyond political rhetoric, which is short-lived and has started to adversely impact the image of Naya Pakistan itself – if there is any. This is at least what I could decipher from my discussion with the residents of the poverty-stricken areas of Karachi during my recent visit.
The symbolism of popular disdain is reflected through the sarcastic use of the phrase ‘Naya Pakistan’ by the people I meet in the middle and lower middle class localities of Karachi. The hopelessness stares at you when you traverse the city in the hope of seeing the change that was promised. But it does not move the political elite and town planners of this mega city.
The government has to show its seriousness by walking the talk to ameliorate the living conditions of the poor. Would it be possible to think of a changing Pakistan when you are left traversing the sprawling vertical and horizontal slums in Karachi? The most politically debilitating factor for the PTI is the fact that one has to traverse a presidential slum amidst the palatial riches of his political coterie.
Poverty is a challenge but you must have an elaborate plan to fight this insidious demon. When you traverse the presidential slum, you do not need any justifications, all you need is change for the better.
The writer is a senior socialdevelopment and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.