When Arif Hasan introduced Haris Gazdar, he said: "I always think there is something wrong with him because he thinks differently." And he does.
Gazdar started the fifth session of the second Karachi conference at the Arts Council by warning the audience that he would bore them with a lot of large numbers. He was wrong. Instead of boring the audience, he made them all think - think about Karachi's population, housing and most importantly - he made them question how big the city they live in really was - and how it was going to keep on growing.
Gazdar's work primarily focuses on politics of regularisation - which is how he met Orangi Pilot Project's late Perween Rehman. "We weren't just colleagues, we were friends," he said during Saturday's session. "Her work has been of great help to us. It gave us a much-needed insight into the politics of Karachi."
While talking about regularised and irregular settlements in the city, Gazdar said that more than 50 per cent of Karachi started life as an irregular settlement. "What I really want to know, how big is Karachi," he said. "Some people say there are about 18 million people in this city, some take the numbers up to 25 million. I believe that there are roughly 15 million people residing here." He added that if they went by the 1998 population census, we wouldn't even reach 20 million by 2030.
Around 2006, he said, they noticed an error in the census. "They learnt that around 10 per cent of the population which included non-residents, such as Bengalis, Afghans and others had not been counted for," he said. "The evidence is mixed and changes the population projections and growth rate. If the 10 per cent is included now, we would have gone beyond 25 million a while ago."
Breaking up the population according to groups, Gazdar said that the Urdu-speaking population in 1998 was 49 per cent - if they go by what they now know, by 2025, the Urdu-speaking population would go down to approximately 42 per cent.
"The error in the census, creates a need for exceptions - all periods are exceptional, and trends take this in, when baseline numbers are big," he said. "It led us to think - if Karachi is bigger than we thought, the Urdu speaking proportion is smaller than we thought and vice versa or if the Pashto-speaking population is bigger than we thought, then it is correspondingly smaller in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa?"
"In the future, politics in a city like Karachi will be all about negotiating between different ethnicities." He added that urban governance needs to be more proactive and show support and celebrate ethnic plurality, rather than ignore it.
Gazdar's presentation was followed by a quick Powerpoint from Mansoor Raza, the deputy director of advocacy and research for the Community World Service. He has dealt with disaster management and response activities along with mitigation plans for Pakistan. Raza spoke at length about Karachi and its traffic issues which he claims are growingby 7.2 per cent annually. He said that the city's transport issues are a result of its in-transition socio-economic realities. Mass transit, he said, cannot be sustained in Karachi without the government helping out with expenses. He added that because of this, Qingqis have filled up the travel vacuum in the city and will keep doing so.
Dr Noman Ahmed also presented a paper during the session. He talked about land issues in Karachi and how they impact the dynamics of urban management and development in Karachi. Ahmed, who is an architect, has worked extensively on planning, Karachi's water issues, and has also written two books. His presentation looked at the people, organisations and departments - formal and informal bodies, governing land in the city.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2014.