Wednesday September 22, 2021

A metropolis in crisis

July 24, 2021

The writer is a freelance journalist.

With a population of over 14.9 million, Karachi is fast turning into a human jungle with an unplanned population putting unbearable strains on the capacity of the metropolis. What was once known as a clean and environment-friendly place to live in is now becoming one of the most unhygienic places to reside in. This mini Pakistan is also among one of the most polluted cities on earth. Choked drains, heaps of garbage and poor sanitation are adding to the health problems of the city's residents.

The city has witnessed an exponential rise in population during the last seven decades. Its population was less than a million in the early years of Partition and even during the decade of the 1950s.

The establishment of industries attracted people from all over Pakistan who settled here and contributed to the progress and development of the city but unfortunately those who worked day and night to run its industries and businesses found abodes in the slums of the metropolis. The city did not come up with any comprehensive plan to house these myriads of population sections who had come to this urban centre in search of employment.

Today Karachi is among the world's top 10 cities housing the largest number of slums and shanty towns. Most of the people in these low-income areas live in inhuman conditions with many of these slums bereft of a proper sanitation system and access to pure drinking water. Tuberculosis, malaria, and so many other diseases are common in such neighbourhoods. With the rise of unemployment, crime is also on the rise.

The phenomenal growth in population has also created a living space problem for the people of Karachi. Most of the areas of the city are densely populated and it is very difficult for a low-income person to find a decent housing unit at a reasonable price.

The distribution of land is very unequal with an elite area housing three to four persons on average in a 500-600 square yard house while in a working class area like Lyari and Orangi Town around 8-12 people are living in a small house of 80 square yards. The city has not witnessed the establishment of any major low-income housing scheme for decades, while the ruling elite has doled out large swaths of land to construction tycoons and real-estate developers at a throw-away price besides permitting the construction of high-rise buildings and multi storey houses. No attention was paid to the size of houses and in some areas housing units of 80, 120 and 200 yards were allowed to develop. Such units were sold out by unscrupulous real-estate agents or greedy developers. In some cases, these buildings developed cracks or collapsed leading to the loss of lives and properties. Thousands of such buildings still exist that might also be wiped out in case a natural calamity hits the metropolis.

Exploiting the paucity of housing units, a number of fake housing societies were established that minted money from poor people, and then ran away with this looted wealth. Those who lost their entire life savings have been running from pillar to post but the government is not ready to trace and arrest these fake housing society developers, many of whom are believed to have settled in the UAE and other parts of the world.

The much-vaunted Naya Pakistan scheme has not been beneficial for the people from bottom layer of social stratification while Taiser Town low-income housing scheme launched by the Sindh government has been marred by mismanagement.

Since the dismantling of the Karachi Transport Corporation in the decade of the 1990s, no government ever bothered to come up with a new state-run transport entity, opening the floodgates of profit for private transporters who have been operating substandard vehicles on the road in connivance with the traffic police. Overcrowded buses racing for profit open indulge in reckless driving leading to fatal accidents that claim hundreds of precious lives. The lack of transport facilities has also encouraged motorcycle manufacturers to flood the metropolis with two wheelers. The Chinese type of auto has also filled the gap but by and large these means of transportation have added to the transport bill of a common citizen who spends thousands of rupees just to get to his or her place of work, businesses or educational institutes.

The government is pumping billions of rupees into the Green Line project that has caused demolition of people's houses and businesses at a massive scale but it is yet to be operational despite years having gone by. Critics believe that instead of pumping billions of rupees into this capital intensive initiative, the government should have built more roads and purchased new buses. This would have gone a long way in mitigating the hardships caused by traffic jams and lack of transport facilities.

Environmentalists believe that Karachi not only has a transport problem but a traffic management issue as well. They assert that heavy penalties should be imposed on car owners for causing congestion and people should be encouraged to use public transport. However, for that to happen first such a system should be put in place. The introduction of large buses might go some way in alleviating the suffering of people who spend hours in traffic due to the mushroom growth of cars that people bought during the time of Musharraf and onwards.

The most pressing problem of the city today is the scarcity of water. Working-class areas have had almost no water for years now from the government supply lines. It is claimed that the city does not have enough availability of pure drinking water but on the other hand there has been a mushroom growth of private hydrants that have been selling water at exorbitant rates. The working-class areas of the city have witnessed the emergence of a water filter plants mafia that is taking water from the existing system, filtering it and selling it door to door. One wonders if there is already scarcity of water in the city then why should private hydrants be allowed to operate, real-estate developers be permitted to construct high-rise buildings or establish new housing societies and private beverage companies be given carte blanche to extract water from the existing system.

The water shortage in several low-income areas has also led to clashes. People are digging roads all over the city to get multiple water connections so that if water supply is disrupted in one line, they can still get it from other lines. The shortage has prompted many people to drill and get underground water, which is highly contaminated in the areas bordering industrial towns of the city. Such a situation will definitely create a health hazard which might become uncontrollable if enough attention is not paid to the issue.

Critics assert that a number of socio-economic issues have plunged several cities of the world into civil strife. From loadshedding to water scarcity, police corruption to unplanned housing, the problems of Karachi are fuelling tensions between the various ethnic groups living in the city. These simmering tensions may escalate into civil strife. Therefore, it is important that the authorities concerned take immediate action to fix these issues. Otherwise a city that has suffered so much turmoil in the past could once again plunge into a crisis which the authorities would find difficult to tide over. The government and all other stakeholders should sit together and come up with a mechanism to address the woes of Karachi before it is too late.

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