Karachi and the paralysis of imagination

Dubai or Kurrachee, at least these residents of Karachi have some idea of what they want this city to be like.

Mahimmaher October 29, 2015
You want to read about a vision of a just Karachi? The contract killer ($50 a hit) ripping up the road behind Disco Bakery on his Honda 200CC and the secret service colonel cracking skulls in a Clifton safe house will both cite one vision: Dubai.

This happens to also be the vision of the one-armed Afghan refugee selling Beijing socks off a cart in Saddar bazaar and the unsexed Karachi Port Trust shipping agent waiting for shady clients to cough up cash so he can escape to Phuket. To borrow from an old Urdu election rallying cry, Chalo,chaloDubaichalo (Come, come, let’s go to Dubai).

Vision presupposes the ability to see what is in front of you, and based on the understanding this seeing yields, you can plan with some measure of wisdom to create what you do not want to see in the future. And so, it is noble to ask what could be a vision of a just Karachi — except that this is an unfair assignment given that this city completely confounds the senses. Just when you think you have some idea of what Karachi is, the landscape will chimerically shift. It is small wonder that the people who live here are forever trying to explain Karachi to themselves and to each other, to define it and even try to form some vision of what it should be. But the city is elusive. In our desperate attempts to exercise some control over this kind of existence, we tend to do two things in reaction, look outwards or backwards.

Those who look outwards have fixated on Dubai, a long-time employment destination for the Pakistani labourer who idealises it as a city where the streets are paved with gold. Given that Dubai is a 90-minute flight away, the elite and upwardly mobile middle classes of Karachi exalt it as an escape from Karachi’s filth and madness. Dubai fits their vision of a shiny, clean, crime-free metropolis where you can exhaust yourself in air-conditioned malls with their Nine West stores, JC Pennys and Starbucks.

Dubai assuages our near-Catholic sense of Islamic guilt of enjoying things too Western; not only is the city Arab but if it is kosher for the sheikhs to order hickory barbecue (chicken) bacon cheeseburgers at the Hard Rock Café, so can a Muslim from Karachi without going to hell in a breadbasket. Stories of Dubai’s real estate bust or the effects of its sterile soullessness and hidden human rights violations don’t figure much in conversations in Karachi.

So, one vision of Karachi is to become a Dubai. Sadly, this is the vision of policymakers in Karachi and the powers that be in our federal capital of Islamabad, who hold the purse strings to our infrastructure development. You can see this vision manifest on our streets in the 44 pro-car and anti-pedestrian overpasses, the new malls, the gated communities. We look outwards when we want to envision Karachi. We would rather mimic instead of indigenously assessing what Karachi is and what its people — rich or poor — need.

Those in Karachi, who do not worship Dubai as an urban model, look backwards. They are full of nostalgia for a postcolonial port city that had dance halls, cinemas, nightclubs, booze, cabarets, promenades, bars, even the British. Dizzie Gillespie came to Karachi in 1956. Custard was served at the Scottish Freemason Hope Lodge. The nostalgia is dated to the 1980s, however, when political violence started to erupt.

But oh, before that you could walk around the old city parts of Saddar and not get murdered. Now you can’t even wear your diamonds beyond Sind Club (where a sign once said, “No women and dogs beyond this point”). The lament for this Kurrachee, as the British spelt it, and the yearning for it to return, conveniently ignores that it was, as Karachi historian Arif Hasan puts it,
“A culture of a colonial port city with a colonial administration under the Empire.”

It was bound to eventually end as it did in a decade with the exit of the British upon Partition in 1947.

Either way, Dubai or Kurrachee, at least these residents of Karachi have some idea of what they want this city to be like. I envy them. I look — but I see nothing. I am afraid to form a vision of Karachi, much less one for a just Karachi. This should not be a challenge given that I know and love this city as a journalist can. Each day, for 15 years, I have been editing news about it, writing it, scouring it, cajoling reporters and photographers to go forth to negotiate with it. We are reluctantly intimate with its subterranean economies, its government extortions, its skins, its rejections, its hidden mercies, not to mention where to get the best goat curry.

Oddly though, the knowledge of these Karachis has had the opposite effect of creating confidence to comment with any authority on the city. If anything, I know that you cannot know anything about it for sure. I have come to see it as intellectually dishonest to hold forth on Karachi. To generalise, especially, is a sin.

Take for example, the long-held view of the residents of Karachi and its police that our slums are the root of crime and religious extremism. It is a convenient snobbery to declare that the poor are criminals. More specifically, we assume that the Afghan refugees, who flocked here from their homeland upon the Russian invasion in the 1970s, are holed up as the Taliban or are the only ones peddling crack on our streets. Crime statistics reveal a more nuanced picture that criminals also live in middle class apartments and not just our ghettoes. When crime shoots up, the police and paramilitary forces raid slums. Young men are rounded up, blindfolded and trundled off to police stations only to be released a few days later because there is no evidence against them. The crime graph doesn’t budge a coordinate. We fool ourselves into thinking we know this city.

Perhaps my caution when it comes to reaching conclusions — and hence developing any vision — about Karachi seems extreme. But even if I suspend it for an essay to try to envision a just Karachi, I am stumped by a paralysis of imagination. I baulk at drawing on the examples of cities in the global North because there are no guarantees that what works for New York will fit for Karachi. The catch phrases resilience and smart city fail to resonate with Karachi (so much so that a friend in urban studies has started a “Dumb City Project”).

Similarly problematic is casting an envious eye towards our neighbour India with its Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, Ministry of Urban Development and e-Seva services. I have come to believe that this inability to even dare to dream of a just Karachi is in part a symptom of living in a city that has been forced to run on crippled formal systems or none at all. Where would I even begin? By shamefacedly admitting that we don’t even have an office of the mayor? We have not had an elected city manager since 2009 but it is only now that the Supreme Court is trying to push the provincial or state government to hold local government elections before the year ends. (In the meantime a handpicked bureaucrat, officially referred to as a city administrator, has been in charge. But his mandate is not to run the city efficiently as he is not answerable to the people of Karachi.)

To be fair, though, not all of what Karachi is today can be attributed to the current failure to form local government. But if I am to draw from the accepted international standard of having city government systems in place to run our cities, I can be forgiven for assuming that this would be a prerequisite to forming any vision in the first place. Isn’t it supposed to be like this: You elect the best qualified mayoral candidate who presents what is closest to your vision for your city?

Instead, over the decades, there has been an erosion of the institutions that have traditionally managed Karachi, with the office of the mayor being the last nail in the coffin. With the recession of these formal systems has come a slow descent into informality, which explains why the city keeps spinning. Our water doesn’t flow from the tap because a tanker mafia steals it from the bulk mains at source and sells it back to us at Rs2,500 (US$25) for 2,000 gallons. The government’s inability to provide affordable housing has left people at the mercy of loan sharks and real estate middleman who squat on state land by developing slums. Informality is the only formality we know. To borrow from beat writer Richard Fariña, Been down so long it looks like up to me.

In this ‘down’, Karachi has learned how to survive and keep working. There is a special Urdu word for this, jugardh. It means ‘make do’ or ‘quick fix,’ to put it roughly. This is our new city social contract in the absence of government. If we want to get anything which the city management would otherwise do for us, we have to rely on informal networks. If you want to get a sewage pipeline fixed in your street, for example, you call up your uncle who happens to know the managing director of the water board.

I understand that perhaps people who have lived in cities with long histories of experimenting and honing the formula for local government are now wondering if a certain measure of informality or organic bottom-up self-determination isn’t a better model. This is a position that can be taken by someone within the luxury of a working system. To me, a system is a safeguard from inequality. The system applies to everyone, not just those with enough powerful connections. Inequality and justice are two sides of a coin to me.

Isn’t justice, by one definition, the administration of the law or authority to maintain what is fair and reasonable? If so, then without an elected City Council with its Treasury and Opposition to keep in check a mayor and his administration (called the Karachi Municipal Corporation), nothing this city decides for itself will be fair and reasonable. Systems inherently carry checks and balances because they are premised on rules. If informality is the only ‘system’ we have then no rules apply.

One example stands out in memory. When we did have an elected city council from 2001 to 2009, Opposition councillors from one political party locked horns with the Treasury members and the Mayor, Mustafa Kamal, over the distribution of funds to their neighbourhoods. They could prove to the city, their voters and those who gave Karachi city its funding that they had been gypped. Don’t get me wrong, our experiment with devolved local government was not untainted by corruption, which emerged at the smallest city unit, the union council level. But at least people living in UC-9, for example, had someone to go to with their needs and that councillor could take it to the town nazim (administrator) who could make a noise in the city council in front of the mayor.

A vision of a just Karachi then perhaps just asks for a basic system of governance. Its residents — whether they drove Mercs or motorcycles, lived in mud huts or mansions — should be able to elect their own representatives. And through them the people would be able to provide their own sense of a just Karachi or at least be able to fight an unjust one.

In the absence of a city council, we have been left at the mercy of the ‘vision’ of ill-informed bureaucrats who have been handpicked by the province’s (state’s) powerful political parties to ‘run’ Karachi as puppets. So we have a Karachi Administrator instead of a mayor and he runs the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation which includes, for example, the departments of transport and communication, sanitation services, parks, land management and local taxes. This has essentially allowed the only two powerful political parties on Karachi’s scene to make unchallenged decisions about the city’s resources.

Let me give one example of a series of coordinated yet unexamined decisions that were made without any input from Karachi’s residents that will have devastating effects on the future of the city.

In 2010, the government created a new high density law and declared 11 zones in Karachi, many of them slums, open for high-rise construction. Height-related restrictions were removed. The amalgamation of plots was allowed, plot ratios were removed and the sizes of buildings were increased. The reasoning provided by policymakers was that Karachi’s population was rapidly growing and densification was needed. No one pointed out that the areas earmarked for high density zones were already dense and there were plenty of rich neighbourhoods with sprawl that were untouched.

This law has opened the door to mega real estate projects without any oversight from the city’s Master Planning department, which has essentially a fairly good design for the city till 2030. This important department has been administratively placed under Karachi’s building control authority, which doles out permits for all construction in the city. The world over this hierarchy is the opposite; only if a building adheres to the plan the city has made for itself can it get the green signal.

For those of us who have tried to keep track of the changing face of Karachi, it is dismaying to behold a constant slipping away of its beauty and charm, or that intangible magic that makes us love this city despite its madness. It is being taken over by the untrammelled development of gated communities. The timber mafia keeps felling its ancient Banyan trees. We had a water crisis this summer because no one is at the helm to plan for the future of our supply or fix our leaky pipes. Our footpaths are disappearing under billboards. Our parks are being taken over by the offices of political parties. Public spaces are being taken over by parking lots.

A vision of a just Karachi? I am laughing. Visions are supposed to create. What do you call wanting to undo?

 This post originally appeared here.
Mahimmaher A journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She has worked as the city editor at The Express Tribune and Daily Times, and now writes long form investigative and explanatory pieces on Karachi’s civic and urban infrastructure with a focus on transport, public spaces and water.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.