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August 11, 2020

Deconstructing the Karachi fantasy


August 11, 2020

Where did the fantasy of ‘federalizing’ Karachi come from? Probably from the same place where came fairy tales about individual saviours that can solve complex problems through the power of ‘discipline’ or self-belief. Of course, human beings are driven by hope. We construct these fantasies because reality is complex, ugly and hard to fathom. Exhibit A: Karachi.

If you don’t understand a problem, you cannot solve it. Year after year, the ‘Karachi problem’ continues to be unsolved because we don’t understand it. The circus of blame travels from one political party to another, from one institution to another, from one capital city to another. The gutters and sewers overflow, the stench of failure and misery thick in the air, from Khyber to Karachi, and this annual, at times biannual, ritual repeats itself. Over and over and over again.

The Karachi problem is the ruralization of the Pakistani city problem. This is not a problem that afflicts only Karachi. It is the singular and defining demographic challenge in Pakistani governance. As long as Pakistan’s cities are treated as fiefdoms by men of provincial intellect, of rural disposition and of feudal instinct, Karachi’s pain will continue to deepen, and as time catches up with these old men, the rest of Pakistan’s cities will look more and more like Karachi, and less and less like 21st century urban centers.

The idea that Karachi is not as unique as is often assumed can be very jarring. So let’s break down the stereotypes. It is said that Karachi is unique and deserving of a special status because, first, it is very large and growing at an unsustainable rate. Second, because it is uniquely diverse, unlike any other city in the country. Third, because it elects representatives that do not run the province that it belongs to. And fourth because it has endured much violence.

Let us begin with size. The top ten most populous cities in Pakistan in the 1998 census were, in order from the most to the least populous: Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Multan, Hyderabad, Gujranwala, Peshawar, Quetta and Islamabad. Remarkably, the top ten remained the same, nearly twenty years later in the 2017 census. But some movement did take place. The top four cities stayed in the order they were, and they all grew substantially. Karachi grew from 9.34 million to 14.91 million. Lahore more than doubled in population, from 5.14 million to 11.13 million. Faisalabad grew from 2 million to 3.2 million. Rawalpindi went from 1.41 million to 2.1 million.

In the two-decade interim between censuses, Gujranwala and Peshawar overtook Multan and Hyderabad for numbers five and six on the top ten list. Gujranwala went from 1.13 million to over 2 million, whilst Peshawar more than doubled in population from about 982,000 to 1.97 million. Multan and Hyderabad grew, albeit much more slowly. Multan went from 1.2 million to 1.87 million, whilst Hyderabad, my paternal home city, grew in population from 1.17 million to 1.73 million.

Closing out the top ten in the 2017 are Islamabad at the ninth most populous city in the country, growing from just over 529,000 in 1998 to over 1.01 million, and Quetta, growing from around 565,000 to over 1 million.

The rate of growth of Karachi is not dramatically higher or lower than the rate of growth of any of the other top ten cities. Hyderabad grew by about 47 percent since the 1998 census. Karachi grew by about 59.6 percent. In the same time period however, Lahore grew by 116 percent, Peshawar grew by 101 percent and Gujranwala grew by 77 percent. Assuming that cities are being measured accurately, and consistently, this means that the story of any major Pakistani city, at least in terms of size and rate of growth, is not as unique as we may often be given to thinking it is. (Of course, one of the reasons why the full census has yet to be published is the contention of several political groups, most notably the MQM, claiming that the Karachi data in the census is problematic).

The second of the great assumptions about Karachi’s uniqueness is that Karachi’s diversity sets it apart from the urban monoliths in the rest of the country. Of course, Karachi is more diverse than Lahore. But Lahore is only one of nine others on the list of top ten, and hardly a good proxy for any of the rest of them. As a measure of unique diversity, Hyderabad, which is more Sindhi than Karachi, and at least as Mohajir, offers good competition just up the highway. But go to Quetta and you find not just two, but at least three major ethnic blocs in the city, including one that is visibly distinct, and a diversity mix that has clear sectarian, ethnic and linguistic dimensions.

In Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, some claim that the most commonly spoken language is not Pashto, but Hindko. Indeed, many in that great bastion of Pakhtun nationalism, the Awami National Party (ANP), are multilinguals that are native Hindko speakers. Islamabad itself, despite how neutered and insipid it may seem, is a complete melting pot, with three generations of migrants settling in the city – you are just as likely to eavesdrop on conversations in Islamabad in Pashto or English, as you are in Pothwari or Urdu.

In short, Karachi’s wonderful diversity is worth considering when we think of solving issues like housing, transportation, climate change, sewage and water supply. But most major cities in Pakistan have remarkable diversity – it merits consideration in each city of the country.

Finally, there is the issue of Karachi electing representatives that do not run the province that it is part of. This issue of inconsonant subsidiarity is wildly overstated. Consider the elected leadership of Lahore alone. The PTI and PML-Q coalition managed to win only four of Lahore’s fourteen seats in the 2018 general elections. No one is asking for the federalization of Lahore. Or Quetta (which has three MNAs, one each from PTI, MMA and BNP).

One final, special category of uniqueness that is attributed to Karachi of course is conflict. Karachiites – lacking an adequate understanding of what other cities in the country have endured – often talk of the violence Karachi has endured due to the Afghan war, the emergence of the criminal mafia inside the MQM, the treatment of Lyari as gangfare central and the spike in sectarian and religious extremism.

Yet Quetta and Peshawar have been transformed by four decades of conflict and violence-driven migration. Cities like Gujranwala and Multan are hubs of organized crime, and chronic public underinvestment in public safety. Groups like the LeJ and the TTP shredded any notion of safety and normalcy in most cities across the country. Karachi had more than its fair share, but the violence it has endured is hardly singular.

The reason we must defy the fetishization of Karachi’s problems as being unique is simple. No challenge is so unique or vexing that we should be driven to conjuring provocative (and extra-constitutional) ideas about how to fix our cities.

The future of every city in the country is clogged drains, no drinking water, and religious, sectarian, ethnic, and linguistic strife. This is not due to Karachi. It is due to the nature of ungoverned urban spaces.

The solution to Karachi’s problems is the solution to Pakistan’s urban problem. And the problem is that there are no urban governance mechanisms in Pakistan. The city is a vacuum. Not the city of Karachi. The very idea of the city.

Neither the 18th Amendment, nor any local government act, nor any serious conversation about urban management in the country caters to the Pakistani city.

An elite bureaucracy that benefits from a one-size fits all Commissionerate Raj will never enact administrative reforms for cities. Politicians that require personal fiefdoms will never enact political reforms for cities. A national elite that extracts revenue from our cities to spend with impunity will never enact fiscal reforms for cities.

Those invested in solving for Karachi must solve for the Pakistani city. That is the only coalition that will be large enough to defeat the provincial, rural and feudal elites holding back Pakistan’s cities.

The writer is an analyst and commentator