Rahul Mehrotra is no stranger to Karachi. From his base in Mumbai, he built Amin Hashwani’s house in Karachi some years ago -- a project for which he visited the city several times. "By the time we did the interiors though, we couldn’t get visas," he added, when we spoke in Cambridge recently.
He recounts a moving story about one of his visits to Karachi. As they landed in the city, he noticed tears in the eyes of an engineer, Subit Deshpande, who was accompanying him from Mumbai. "He told me that his late father was a Bombay-based contractor who built that airstrip, when Karachi was part of the Bombay Presidency."
Mehrotra, Chair and Professor of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), conceived the Conference on the Contemporary South Asian City, held in Karachi last month and co-sponsored by Karachi’s Aman Foundation and Harvard’s South Asia Institute. Coordinating the Harvard delegation was SAI’s Executive Director, Meena Hewett.
The idea is to generate new insights about the socio-economic and political challenges that South Asian cities face, like housing, urbanisation, disaster response, mental health, and conservation.
The disaster response and mental health side was covered by a team from Harvard’s School of Public Health -- Jennifer Leaning, Director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Satchit Balsari, Fellow at the FXB Center who "has worked extensively in India with hospitals in Delhi and Mumbai," says Dr Leaning, and Ruth Barron, Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and Director of Outpatient Psychiatry at Cambridge Health Alliance.
Besides Rahul Mehrotra, other delegates from the Design School were Spiro Pollalis, Professor of Design, Technology and Management and Justin D. Stern, a PhD student in Urban Planning and Design.
"The mega-conference, with over 3,000 guests registered, took place at the historic Frere Hall, and was organised very efficiently over a three-day period," comments the SAI website. Politicians, scholars, doctors, architects, urban planners, and citizens converged to explore issues related to rapid urban change.
Talking about the project, which he hopes will continue over the next four or five years, Prof. Mehrotra observes that over the past couple of decades, there has been a "political blurring of boundaries, new forms of porosities and flows," even as visa regimes have become stricter.
"India and Pakistan share a lot in common, we have a lot to exchange and learn. On katchi abadis, we can learn from Karachi, where so much work has been done on this, by Arif Hasan for example," he adds. "Yasmin Lari has a lot of work on heritage buildings. Since 1995, Mumbai has a sophisticated legislation on heritage buildings. This could be useful for Karachi.
"We have the same colonial past, governance structure. The major difference arises in the land reforms in India and the role of the army in Pakistan. But at the level of people, society, and culture, there are mind-boggling similarities."
There are many cross-border connections. "Delhi and Lahore are almost a continuous megapolis, with all the towns running into each other. This has happened with other cities too, like Kolkata and Dhaka."
Rahul Mehrotra’s connection to Pakistan includes a book he wrote on architecture in South Asia, commissioned by the Chinese Association of Architects as part of their series on the architectures of various regions, back in the year 2000. His advisor for Pakistan was the respected Lahore-based architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz.
Speaking of Lahore, another link emerges: before 1947, his family lived in Lakshmi Mansion apartments at Regal Chowk, between Hall Road and Beadon Road, along with the family of the Indian politician Mani Shankar Aiyer. Prof. Mehrotra’s grandfather had been in charge of the construction of these historic apartment blocks, where the famous short story writer Sadat Hasan Manto later lived. I have a special place in my heart for this place, as I too lived there for about ten years.
Jennifer Leaning’s team had another agenda besides the conference -- to meet with those working in the fields of disaster/emergency response and mental health -- for the two are connected.
Their approach to disaster response is a multi-pronged and systematic one that includes coordinating with security personnel and other first responders. For example, first responders must be trained to sort out injured people and casualties at a disaster scene. "When dead bodies, the severely injured, and those with minor injuries are all lumped together and taken to the hospitals, it can create further disorder and chaos."
Dr Leaning is all praise for Aman Foundation’s Dr Junaid Razzaq -- "an extraordinarily wise, disciplined, and kind person, doing such extraordinary work and has such great ideas".
Dr Razzaq has worked in Emergency Medicine at Yale University and Emory University in the USA, and holds a PhD in Public Health from Sweden. Besides Aman Health, he works at the Aga Khan University as a Senior Lecturer and Director of WHO Collaborating Center in Emergency Medicine and Trauma; he is also a visiting faculty at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
He wants to develop a training protocol for the community, including children and women who can get particularly isolated, and train community health workers to deal with issues on the ground. Dr Leaning says they’re hoping to take these ideas further and work together on the training of trainers.
The Harvard delegates avoid positioning themselves as "experts", saying that they, too, have a lot to learn from those coping with situations on the ground. It’s stressful living in a place where the risk of violence is high. Dr Leaning recognises that Foundation is trying to understand and mitigate that stress."
On the personal side, she loved her first visit to Pakistan -- which included a brief trip to Lahore, from where some team members crossed over into India.
"Karachi is an extraordinary city, with fascinating and brave people. We made some very good connections there, and it was good for our world education."
Besides lively, intelligent conversations with committed people who felt "familiar in terms of the level of discourse," there was "fabulous coffee and great food".
The Karachi conference is the first in a potential series on the South Asian City sponsored by Harvard SAI. The project could build a network of capacity in the region and create new forms of awareness about how we think about our cities. An exploratory meeting is planned in Dhaka in a few months.
But for it to be replicated in other cities, it will require, as Dr Leaning notes, a "focussed participant", like Aman Foundation, on the ground.