NON-FICTION: THE FIGHT FOR A CITY’S SOUL

In Karachi — the commercial heart of the country — and its surrounding Sindh province, the rioting and looting in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007 highlighted deep fractures in Pakistani society.

Vehicles were set ablaze. Private universities, schools, factories, government buildings, banks, petrol pumps and ‘posh’ food outlets were attacked. In an early 2008 Dawn op-ed, Arif Hasan reminded us that these were examples of institutions where the poor couldn’t afford to study, businesses where they couldn’t get jobs and government offices where they had to pay bribes and where they were insulted and abused.

To Hasan, the destruction was an obvious manifestation of people’s anger and sorrow at a leader’s sudden death. However, the extent of damage to private and public property was — in addition to the outpouring of grief — indicative of high levels of poverty, unemployment and political deprivation that had overcome the populace after eight years of military rule. Other fractures that became evident were, of course, Karachi’s ever-present, unresolved ethnic tensions.

For decades, Hasan — Pakistan’s foremost urban planner — has shared critical insights about Karachi’s social, cultural and political life through newspaper columns, magazine articles, reports, speeches and numerous books. The Search for Shelter: Writings on Land and Housing, is part of this continuum.

Arif Hasan’s writings on land and housing are an example of engaged scholarship, an effort to find ways to create a future city that respects the views and needs of the majority

While offering a comparative understanding of cities such as Pakistan’s Faisalabad and Bangladesh’s Sylhet, a case study of Central Asian urbanism and even community and social housing initiatives in the United Kingdom, this clearly written and accessible set of essays primarily focuses on access to land and housing for the poor and the marginalised in one of the world’s largest cities.

Through careful research, ample empirical evidence and exemplary analysis, Hasan shows how Karachi is part of an ongoing process of privatisation and elite capture under the rubric of the neoliberal consensus in the global economy.

This new vision, exemplified as a “World Class City”, is being promoted for most cities in the global South. Meant to transform urban space — to accommodate expensive, high-rise apartment blocks; flyovers and expressways for individualised modes of transport; create tourist attractions (and international events) for those who can afford it; and construct upper-class shopping malls instead of accessible markets — this is creative destruction of space shaped by contemporary capitalism’s imagination of the urban.

The long-term consequences of these changes are yet to be determined. However, Hasan cautions that these are exclusionary processes, insensitive to the housing, transportation and employment needs of the majority, and also to their impact on the socio-environmental landscape.

Despite its focus on Karachi, the book tells a larger story by reminding us that, by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s nine billion people will live in urban areas. Presently, the world has over 500 cities with populations of over one million each and future growth is projected to happen exclusively in cities, not in rural areas.

Alongside megacities such as Jakarta, Dhaka, Karachi, Mumbai, Cairo and Lagos (all in the global South), which have populations of around 20 million each, there has been a concomitant growth of small and second-tier cities. These enlarging urban spaces — with inadequate planning, job opportunities and infrastructure — absorb most of the rural migrants forced to leave home because of market reforms and agricultural deregulation.

Within this scenario, issues of housing and shelter are paramount, as almost a billion people globally live in slums. The new ‘normal’ in urban neighbourhoods, these are sites of entrenched social depravity and poverty, with poor infrastructural amenities.

Most of Hasan’s book builds on this history to focus on changes linked to gentrification and anti-poor policies currently being implemented in Karachi and leading to housing crises for the socially marginalised, the lower-middle class and the poor. Indeed, I read the book as an engagement with Hasan’s longer trajectory of work. Here, as in his earlier writings, he follows Karachi’s growth since the 1970s because of migration from Pakistan’s rural and other urban areas.

Karachi is Pakistan’s industrial, commercial and trade centre, its major port, home to almost 20 million people of various ethnicities and nationalities, and houses 24 percent of the country’s urban population.

Aerial view of Empress Market, Saddar. The area’s gentrification has involved the eviction of shopkeepers and street hawkers
Aerial view of Empress Market, Saddar. The area’s gentrification has involved the eviction of shopkeepers and street hawkers

The continuing liberalisation of Pakistan’s economy since the 1980s — under pressure from institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — has left a deep impact, primarily on the urban employment sector, with rising joblessness because of privatisation, retrenchment of labour in the formal sector and the lack of growth of new industries. This has resulted in the maldistribution of civic resources to the poorest citizens.

Hence, diminishing job opportunities, the housing crisis, endemic social violence and reduced access to affordable healthcare and education because of increased privatisation — among other processes — continue to plague the daily life of most Karachiites.

This is the context within which Hasan informs us that, while there were attempts to provide publicly financed housing for the poor in the 1970s — many may not recall the Metroville project, or even the 1980s’ Khuda Ki Basti experiment — in recent years, these schemes have been shelved in favour of a privatised real estate market that depends upon international and domestic capital and the local land mafia.

As the population grows, squatter settlements (katchi abadis) have mushroomed. From two million in 1978, today an estimated nine million people call these home. Fifty-four percent of katchi abadi dwellers are the chronic poor, working in the informal sector on contractual basis or daily wages. Meanwhile, Karachi’s urban footprint has more than doubled in the last 40 years.

Further, in recent years, the state (sometimes encouraged by the judiciary) has actively pursued anti-encroachment and anti-poor policies, demolishing “illegally” constructed housing and informal market spaces, under the pretext of beautification and rational space management.

Additionally, with minimal representation from the public, those in power have allowed major real estate developers to build scores of high-rise (15-20 floors) buildings with no input from the surrounding affected communities, and without considering the social, environmental and cultural impact of these projects on neighbourhoods and city life.

Reading The Search for Shelter within the oeuvre of Hasan’s writings on Karachi, we remember how, historically, the urban core was cleared of its working poor, who were — through force or the lure of a “better life” — pushed to the periphery. This caused a multitude of housing, transportation and employment problems, while marginalising them from the politics of civic rights and democratic participation.

A recent example of this dislocation is the demolition of the bazaars surrounding Empress Market, the 19th century structure at the heart of Karachi’s colonial centre Saddar. Hasan had reminded us in an earlier work that, until 1965, this same Saddar had 37 restaurants, 11 billiard rooms, 18 bookshops, 13 cinemas, nine bars, seven auditoriums and four discotheques, all within one square kilometre.

Yet today, rather than restore the vitality of the area — a kind of public square where all classes rubbed shoulders — government and non-government planners are geared towards an imagined gentrification, by evicting shopkeepers and street hawkers.

Whether these imaginations to “capture” the city centre will come to fruition is an open question, yet the book indeed discusses how, in pursuing large development projects such as the Lyari Expressway or the re-establishment of the circular railway system, thousands of housing structures have been demolished as encroachments.

Even houses built on state land soon after Partition, for government servants in the city’s central districts (Pakistan Quarters), have been ordered to be demolished, as the value of the land has risen substantially. This may displace residents and render them homeless without compensation.

As a collective, we remain indebted to Hasan not only for his research-based analysis and writing, but also for his continuous moral and ethical leadership, whenever there has been a struggle for housing or environmental rights in Karachi (and elsewhere).

Hasan’s book is engaged scholarship; the effort is not to merely critique, but to find egalitarian and inclusionary ways forward, to find alternatives for creating a future city that respects the views and needs of the majority, takes note of the natural environment and ecology, and seeks to preserve the tangible and intangible cultural heritage that is bequeathed to all who share urban spaces.

For this to happen, Hasan writes that involvement of civil society organisations and the public itself is necessary. The book outlines struggles in which Hasan himself played a pivotal role, some of which successfully held off the sale of islands off Karachi’s coast to international investors, or forced modifications in the Karachi Mass Transit Project.

Of course, the struggles did not always culminate in desired successes, but their documentation offers historical context, a graspable memory and a template to follow. In the final analysis, The Search for Shelter is a guide for those who — following Hasan’s own example — continue to struggle against the eviction of the poor and the marginalised and, like him, imagine a more humane and egalitarian future for all.

The reviewer teaches anthropology at the University of Texas in Austin, USA

Published in Dawn, By Kamran Asdar Ali, Books & Authors, April 17th, 2022

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