Architect and urban planner Arif Hasan certainly does not mince his words. “Karachi has become an extremely ugly city in the last 25 years — and it is becoming progressively worse.”
He pulled no punches while speaking at a panel discussion titled ‘Vitality and Violence: The Chaos that is Karachi’ at the sixth Karachi Literature Festival on Sunday, where his book Karachi: The Land Issue was also being launched.
“Karachi’s very major issue is land,” he went on. “Land is responsible for great injustices here. I will go further and say that it is responsible for cruelty and barbarism.”
He added that the problem of land connected closely to ethnic and religious violence as well as the killings of activists. “Under their own laws, Israel’s occupation of Palestine is legal and South Africa’s apartheid was legal. What happens here is also legal, but is it moral?”
According to Hasan, land is simply not affordable in the sprawling metropolis anymore — a fact that affects the poor more than anyone else. “Sixty-two per cent of the people here live in informal housing but they only occupy 12 per cent of the land,” he said, hammering his point home with numbers. “The density of the inner city settlements is 6,000 persons per hectare: that means 18 people to a room, 20 people sharing a toilet.”
For Hasan, recent laws passed by the provincial government — what he called “an antithesis to planning” — spell nothing short of disaster. While he proposed steps, such as land ceiling acts and ending land speculation, he added that it was impossible to discuss such matters with those in charge anymore. “If you can’t talk, how will you bring about change?” he asked.
Meanwhile, short story writer Maniza Naqvi remarked that maps of the city’s sprawl reminded her of the shrinking of Palestine, but in reverse. She added that the city may be chaotic but the chaos was “ordered disorder, planned chaos.”
When writer Rumana Husain talked about Karachi’s diversity, she focused on the lack of understanding of it. Recounting how a school principal stood up at a conference to ask, “But aren’t the Parsis Christian?”, she wondered how one could live amid such diverse communities and not know about them. “Karachi is largely a migrant city and we need to know where the migrants come from and how they live,” she stressed.
Moderator Kamran Asdar Ali, the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s South Asia Institute, summed up ‘the chaos that is Karachi’. “Different people from all over the country coexist here - and sometimes, they coexist in harmony.”
Published in The Express Tribune, February 9th, 2015.
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