KARACHI: For an average Karachi resident, the daily traffic jam, rush to get to office, college or school often distracts from the seismic but gradually shifting patterns of life in the city.
But for Kamran Asdar Ali, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin, working in the US affords him a bird’s-eye view of the changes in his hometown, Karachi. Indeed, his work has long been preoccupied with cities: He is the author of Planning the Family in Egypt, co-editor of Gendering Urban Space in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa and Comparing Cities: Middle East and South Asia, both with Martina Rieker, with whom he also coordinates the Shehr Network on Comparative Urban Landscapes.
Thus it was with a fresh eye that he took in the recent drive from the airport on to Sharah-e-Faisal. He was struck by the vast expanses of military land on both sides where more buildings had come up. The large houses near Nursery had been replaced with commercial towers.
“There are more flyovers and a lot of empty space underneath them,” he told The Express Tribune in an interview on Tuesday. “I also see a lot of huge buildings, which are not sustainable. There is seepage in the walls and they look ugly.”
People don’t realise but different ethnicities have started to move around the city too, he said.
“Urdu-speaking people are moving from Gulshan-e-Iqbal to Clifton and Defence. Pathans and Punjabis have shifted to Paposh from Banaras and other places. This has altered the relations between neighbours.” There is nothing wrong with such demographic shifts, he stresses, but it is important for the city’s managers to ensure everyone enters mainstream city life instead of being relegated to its margins.
The city’s politics, which used to revolve around social status, has been replaced with that of ethnicity, Asdar says. “Waves of immigrants have come to Karachi from other cities and settled around industrial areas. Their lives start and end there.”
The key is how the majority is made to feel that the city belongs to them given that satisfying everyone is impossible. But people must realise that Karachi is part of the province, he says when asked to comment on the local government system that the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Pakistan Peoples Party are trying to hammer. “Because of its industries, the city generates most of the taxes, but all of them can’t be spent here,” he feels. “I personally believe Karachi will do well under a local government system with an elected mayor.”
Working on an assignment in Egypt in the 1990s, he came across men who lived on the fringes of Cairo and had never seen Tahrir Square – the central part of the city. “When I invited them for a meal, almost all of them wondered how they would reach the place?”
He also notes that for Karachi there is a lack of places where everyone can mingle, like Empress Market. This has led to a ghettoisation of neighbourhoods. “Now people who live in Hyderi will want to go out to eat in the same area. My nephews are scared of going to Saddar from Clifton.”
Before factories with their boilers and bank offices in glass towers came up, there were scattered villages around the city, he points out. “We must not forget that we have pushed them further and further into small ghettoes.”
Transport and housing
As with other sprawling cities, public transport problems have surfaced in Karachi as well.
“There are too many private cars,” Asdar notes. “Under Pervez Musharraf, the interest rate was lowered and car financing was doled out to everyone. Then, for all these cars, flyovers were built. However, for the average citizen, I see only more worries.”
A great challenge before the authorities is to provide the public affordable housing accommodation. “Letting private developers construct congested apartments is not the answer.” In the 1940s, for example, the government built flats for the poor in New York. But by the 1970s, they were being demolished because the places had become a hotbed for crime.
Across Karachi, large projects are facing similar problems, he says. “We must ask ourselves first if such structures are sustainable – whether we are able to keep the elevators running, if there is enough water and electricity.” He says he doesn’t necessarily have solutions for these kind of problems, but sometimes working towards one starts with realising that the status quo isn’t sustainable.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2012.