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About Karachi City Essays

This article is about the city of Karachi. For other uses, see Karachi (disambiguation).


Clockwise from top: The tomb of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Frere Hall, a view of I. I. Chundrigar Road, the Karachi Port Trust Building, the Mohatta Palace, Port of Karachi

Nickname(s): City of the Quaid, Paris of Asia,[2][3] The City of Lights,[2] Bride of the Cities[4]


Location in Pakistan

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Karachi (Pakistan)

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Karachi (Asia)

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Karachi (Earth)

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Coordinates: 24°51′36″N67°0′36″E / 24.86000°N 67.01000°E / 24.86000; 67.01000Coordinates: 24°51′36″N67°0′36″E / 24.86000°N 67.01000°E / 24.86000; 67.01000
Metropolitan Corporation2011
City CouncilCity Complex, Gulshan-e-Iqbal Town
 • TypeMetropolitan City
 • Mayor of KarachiWaseem Akhtar
 • Deputy Mayor of KarachiArshad Vohra
 • Total3,780 km2 (1,460 sq mi)
Elevation8 m (26 ft)
Population (2017 Census)[10]
 • Total14,910,352[6]
 • Rank1st in Pakistan
Time zonePKT (UTC+05:00)
Postal codes74XXX – 75XXX
Dialing code+9221-XXXX XXXX
GDP/PPP$113 billion (2014)[11]
HDI0.69 [12]
HDI CategoryMedium

Karachi (Urdu: کراچی‬‎; ALA-LC: Karācī, IPA: [kəˈraːtʃi] ( listen); Sindhi: ڪراچي‎) is the capital of the Pakistani province of Sindh. It is the most populous city in Pakistan,[13][14] and third most populous city proper in the world.[15][16] Ranked as a beta world city,[17][18] the city is Pakistan's premier industrial and financial centre.[19] Karachi is also Pakistan's most cosmopolitan city.[20] Situated on the Arabian Sea, Karachi serves as a transport hub, and is home to two of Pakistan's two largest seaports, the Port of Karachi and Port Bin Qasim, as well as the busiest airport in Pakistan.

Though the Karachi region has been inhabited for millennia,[21] the city was founded as the fortified village of Kolachi[22] in 1729.[23] The settlement drastically increased in importance with the arrival of British East India company in the mid 19th century, who not only embarked on major works to transform the city into a major seaport, but also connected it with their extensive railway network.[22] By the time of the Partition of British India, the city was the largest in Sindh with an estimated population of 400,000.[20] Following the independence of Pakistan, the city's population increased dramatically with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees from India.[24] The city experienced rapid economic growth following independence, attracting migrants from throughout Pakistan and South Asia.[25]

Karachi is one of Pakistan's most secular and socially liberal cities.[26][27][28] It is also the most linguistically, ethnically, and religiously diverse city in Pakistan.[20] With a population of 14.9 million recorded in the 2017 Census of Pakistan,[6] Karachi is the world's 12th most populous metropolitan area.[29][30] Karachi is one of the world's fastest growing cities,[31] and has communities representing almost every ethnic group in Pakistan. Karachi is home to over 2 million Bangladeshi immigrants, 1 million Afghan refugees, and up to 400,000 Rohingyas from Myanmar.[32][33][34]

Karachi is now Pakistan's premier industrial and financial centre. The city has a formal economy estimated to be worth $113 billion as of 2014[update].[35] Karachi collects over a third of Pakistan's tax revenue,[36] and generates approximately 20% of Pakistan's GDP.[37][38] Approximately 30% of Pakistani industrial output is from Karachi,[39] while Karachi's ports handle approximately 95% of Pakistan's foreign trade.[40] Approximately 90% of the multinational corporations operating in Pakistan are headquartered in Karachi.[40] Up to 70% of Karachi's workforce is employed in the informal economy,[41] which is typically not included in GDP calculations.[42]

Known as the "City of Lights" in the 1960s and 1970s for its vibrant nightlife,[43] Karachi was beset by sharp ethnic, sectarian, and political conflict in the 1980s with the arrival of weaponry during the Soviet–Afghan War.[44] The city had become well known for its high rates of violent crime, but recorded crimes sharply decreased following a controversial crackdown operation against criminals, the MQM political party, and Islamist militants initiated in 2013 by the Pakistan Rangers.[45] The city's murder rate in 2015 had decreased by 75% compared to 2013, and kidnappings decreased by 90%,[46] with the improved security environment triggering sharp increases in real-estate prices.[47]


Karachi was reputedly founded in 1729 as the settlement of Kolachi.[23] The new settlement is said to have been named in honour of Mai Kolachi, whose son is said to have slain a man-eating crocodile in the village after his elder brothers had already been killed by it.[23]

The city's inhabitants are referred to by the demonymKarachiite in English, and Karāchīwālā in Urdu.


Main articles: History of Karachi and Timeline of Karachi history

Early history

Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites discovered by a team from Karachi University on the Mulri Hills constitute one of the most important archaeological discoveries made in Sindh during the last 50 years. The earliest inhabitants of the Karachi region are believed to have been hunter-gatherers, with ancient flint tools discovered at several sites. A sea port called Barbarikon by the Greeks was situated in Karachi.

The Karachi region is believed to have been known to the ancient Greeks. The region may be the site of Krokola, where Alexander the Great once camped to prepare a fleet for Babylonia, as well as Morontobara which may possibly be Karachi's Manora neighbourhood.

In 711 CE, Muhammad bin Qasim conquered the Sindh and Indus Valley. The Karachi region is believed to have been known to the Arabs as Debal, from where Muhammad Bin Qasim launched his forces into South Asia in 712 C.E.[48]

Under Mirza Ghazi Beg, the Mughal administrator of Sindh, the development of coastal Sindh and the Indus delta was encouraged. Under his rule, fortifications in the region acted as a bulwark against Portuguese incursions into Sindh. The Ottomanadmiral, Seydi Ali Reis, mentioned Debal and Manora Island in his book Mir'ât ül Memâlik in 1554.

Kolachi settlement

Karachi was founded in 1729 as the settlement of Kolachi under the rule of the ethnically Baloch Talpur Mirs of Sindh.[23] The founders of the settlement are said to arrived from the nearby town of Karak Bandar after the harbour there silted in 1728 after heavy rains. The settlement was fortified, and defended with cannons imported by Sindhi sailors from Muscat, Oman. The name Karachee was used for the first time in a Dutch document from 1742, in which a merchant ship de Ridderkerk is shipwrecked near the original settlement.[49][50] The city continued to be ruled by the Talpur Mirs until it was occupied by forces under the command of John Keane in February 1839.

British Raj

The British East India Company captured Karachi on 3 February 1839 after the HMS Wellesley opened fire and quickly destroyed the local mud fort at Manora.[52] The town was annexed to British India in 1843 after Sindh was captured by Major General Charles James Napier in the Battle of Miani, with the city declared capital of the new British province.

The city was recognized for its strategic importance, prompting the British to establish the Port of Karachi in 1854. Karachi rapidly became a transportation hub for British India owing to newly built port and rail infrastructure, as well as the increase in agricultural exports from the opening of productive tracts of newly irrigated land in Punjab and interior Sindh.[53] The British also developed the Karachi Cantonment as a military garrison in order to aid the British war effort in the First Anglo-Afghan War.[54]

During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the 21st Native Infantry, then stationed in Karachi, mutinied and declared allegiance to rebel forces in September 1857, though the British were able to quickly defeat the rebels and reassert control over the city. Following the Rebellion, British colonial administrators continued to develop the city. In 1864, the first telegraphic message was sent from South Asia to England from Karachi.[55] Public building works were undertaken, including the construction of Frere Hall in 1865 and the later Empress Market. In 1878, the British Raj connected Karachi with the network of British India's vast railway system.

By 1899, Karachi had become the largest wheat-exporting port in the East.[56] British development projects in Karachi resulted in an influx of economic migrants from several ethnicities and religions, including Anglo-British, Parsis, Marathis, and Goan Christians, among others. Karachi's newly arrived Jewish population established the city's first synagogue in 1893.[57]Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was born in Karachi's Wazir Mansion in 1876 to migrants from Gujarat. By the end of the 19th century, Karachi's population was estimated to be 105,000.[58]

Under British rule, the city's municipal government was established. Known as the Father of Modern Karachi, mayor Seth Harchandrai Vishandas led the municipal government to improve sanitary conditions in the Old City, as well as major infrastructure works in the New Town after his election in 1911.[2]


At the dawn of Pakistan's independence in 1947, Karachi was Sindh's largest city with a population of over 400,000.[20] Despite communal violence across India and Pakistan, Karachi remained relatively peaceful compared to cities further north in Punjab.[2] The city became the focus for the resettlement of MuslimMuhajirs migrating from India, leading to a dramatic expansion of the city's population. This migration lasted until the 1960s.[59] This immigration ultimately transformed the city's demographics and economy.

Karachi was selected as the first capital of Pakistan and served as such until the capital was shifted to Rawalpindi in 1958.[60] While foreign embassies shifted away from Karachi, the city is host to numerous consulates and honorary consulates.[61] Between 1958 and 1970, Karachi's role as capital of Sindh was ceased due to the One Unit programme enacted by President Iskander Mirza.[2]

Karachi of the 1960s was regarded as an economic role model around the world, with Seoul, South Korea borrowing from the city's second "Five-Year Plan."[62][63] The 1970s saw major labour struggles in Karachi's industrial estates. The 1980s and 1990s saw an influx of thousands of Afghan refugees from the Soviet war in Afghanistan into Karachi; who were in turn followed in smaller numbers by refugees escaping from post-revolution Iran.[64]

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Karachi was rocked by political and conflict, while crime rates drastically increased with the arrival of weaponry from the War in Afghanistan.[44] Conflict between the MQM party, and ethnic Sindhis, Pashtuns, and Punjabis was sharp. The party and its vast network of supporters were targeted by Pakistani security forces as part of the controversial Operation Clean-up in 1992 – an effort to restore peace in the city that lasted until 1994.[65] Anti-Hindu riots also broke out in Karachi in 1992 in retaliation for the demolition of the Babri Mosque in India by a group of Hindu nationalists earlier that year.[66] Karachi had become widely known for its high rates of violent crime, but recorded crimes sharply decreased following a controversial crackdown operation against criminals, the MQM party, and Islamist militants initiated in 2013 by the Pakistan Rangers.[45]


Main articles: Geography of Karachi and Environment of Karachi

Karachi is located on the coastline of Sindh province in southern Pakistan, along a natural harbour on the Arabian Sea. Karachi is built on a coastal plains with scattered rocky outcroppings, hills and coastal marshlands. Coastal mangrove forests grow in the brackish waters around the Karachi Harbour, and farther southeast towards the expansive Indus River Delta. West of Karachi city is the Cape Monze, locally known as Ras Muari, which is an area characterised by sea cliffs, rocky sandstone promontories and undeveloped beaches.

Within the city of Karachi are two small ranges: the Khasa Hills and Mulri Hills, which lie in the northwest and act as a barrier between North Nazimabad Town and Orangi Town.[67] Karachi's hills are barren and are part of the larger Kirthar Range, and have a maximum elevation of 528 metres (1,732 feet).

Between the hills are wide coastal plains interspersed with dry river beds and water channels. Karachi has developed around the Malir River and Lyari Rivers, with the Lyari shore being the site of the settlement for Kolachi. To the west of Karachi lies the Indus River flood plain.[68]


Main article: Climate of Karachi

Karachi has an arid climate (Köppen: BWh) dominated by a long "Summer Season" while moderated by oceanic influence from the Arabian Sea. The city has low annual average precipitation levels (approx. 250 mm (9.8 in) per annum), the bulk of which occurs during the July–August monsoon season. While the summers are hot and humid, cool sea breezes typically provide relief during hot summer months, though Karachi is prone to deadly heat waves,[69] though a text-message based early warning system is now in place that helped prevent any fatalities during an unusually strong heatwave in October 2017.[70] The winter climate is dry and lasts between December and February. It is dry and pleasant relative to the warm hot season, which starts in March and lasts until monsoons arrive in June. Proximity to the sea maintains humidity levels at near-constant levels year-round.

The city's highest monthly rainfall, 429.3 mm (16.90 in), occurred in July 1967.[71] The city's highest rainfall in 24 hours occurred on 7 August 1953, when about 278.1 millimetres (10.95 in) of rain lashed the city, resulting in major flooding.[72] Karachi's highest recorded temperature is 48 °C (118 °F) which was recorded on 9 May 1938,[73] and the lowest is 0 °C (32 °F) recorded on 21 January 1934.[71]

Climate data for Karachi
Record high °C (°F)32.8
Average high °C (°F)25.8
Daily mean °C (°F)18.1
Average low °C (°F)10.4
Record low °C (°F)0.0
Average rainfall mm (inches)6.0
Mean monthly sunshine hours270.7249.4271.6277.4299.1231.8155.0147.7218.8283.5273.3272.02,950.3
Source #1: NOAA[74]
Source #2: PMD (extremes)[75]


The city first developed around the Karachi Harbour, and owes much of its growth to its role as a seaport at the end of the 18th century,[76] contrasted with Pakistan's millennia-old cities such as Lahore, Multan, and Peshawar. Karachi's Mithadar neighbourhood represents the extent of Kolachi prior to British rule.

British Karachi was divided between the "New Town" and the "Old Town," with British investments focused primarily in the New Town.[54] The Old Town was a largely unplanned neighbourhood which housed most of the city's indigenous residents, and had no access to sewerage systems, electricity, and water.[54] The New Town was subdivided into residential, commercial, and military areas.[54] Given the strategic value of the city, the British developed the Karachi Cantonment as a military garrison in the New Town in order to aid the British war effort in the First Anglo-Afghan War.[54]

The city's development was largely confined to the area north of the Chinna Creek prior to independence, although the seaside area of Clifton was also developed as a posh locale under the British, and its large bungalows and estates remain some of the city's most desirable properties. The aforementioned historic areas form the oldest portions of Karachi, and contain its most important monuments and government buildings, with the I. I. Chundrigar Road being home to most of Pakistan's banks, including the Habib Bank Plaza which was Pakistan's tallest building from 1963 until the early 2000s.[2]

Situated on a coastal plain northwest of Karachi's historic core lies the sprawling district of Orangi Town. North of the historic core is the largely middle-class district of Nazimabad, and upper-middle class North Nazimabad, which were developed in the 1950s. To the east of the historic core is the area known as Defence – an expansive upscale suburb developed and administered by the Pakistan Army. Karachi's coastal plains along the Arabian Sea south of Clifton were also developed much later as part of the greater Defence Housing Authority project.

Karachi's city limits also include several islands, including Baba and Bhit Islands, Oyster Rocks, and Manora, a former island which is now connected to the mainland by a thin 12 kilometre long shoal known as Sandspit. The city has been described as one divided into sections for those able to afford to live in planned localities with access to urban amenities, and those who live in unplanned communities with inadequate access to such services.[77] Up to 60% of Karachi's residents live in such unplanned communities.[77]


Main article: Economy of Karachi

Karachi is Pakistan's financial and commercial capital.[78] Since Pakistan's independence, Karachi has been the centre of the nation's economy, and remain's Pakistan's largest urban economy despite the economic stagnation caused by sociopolitical unrest during the late 1980s and 1990s. The city forms the centre of an economic corridor stretching from Karachi to nearby Hyderabad, and Thatta.[79]

With an estimated GDP of $113 billion as of 2014[update],[35] Karachi contributes the bulk of Sindh's gross domestic product.[80][81][82][83] The city's competitiveness has declined relative to other Pakistani cities on account of poor infrastructure, corruption, and political instability.[79]

Following a controversial crackdown operation against criminals initiated in 2013 by the Pakistan Rangers,[45] crime rates have dramatically fallen in the city,[46] triggering sharp increases in real-estate prices.[47] In addition to increased land values, upmarket restaurants and cafés are described by Reuters as "overflowing."[84]


Karachi accounts for approximately 20% of the total GDP of Pakistan.[37][38] The city has a large informal economy which is not typically reflected in GDP estimates.[85] The informal economy may constitute up to 36% of Pakistan's total economy, versus 22% of India's economy, and 13% of the Chinese economy.[86] The informal sector employs up to 70% of the city's workforce.[41] An estimated 63% of the city's workforce is employed in trade and manufacturing.[79]

Finance and Banking

Most of Pakistan's public and private banks are headquartered on Karachi's I. I. Chundrigar Road, which is known as "Pakistan's Wall Street",[2] with a large percentage of the cashflow in the Pakistani economy taking place on I. I. Chundrigar Road. Most major foreign multinational corporations operating in Pakistan have their headquarters in Karachi. Karachi is also home to the Pakistan Stock Exchange, which was rated as Asia's best performing stock market in 2015 on the heels of Pakistan's upgrade to emerging-market status by MSCI.[87]

Media and Technology

Main articles: Media in Karachi, Cinema in Karachi, List of television stations in Karachi, List of magazines in Karachi, and List of newspapers in Karachi

Karachi has been the pioneer in cable networking in Pakistan with the most sophisticated of the cable networks of any city of Pakistan, and has seen an expansion of information and communications technology and electronic media. The city has become a software outsourcing hub for Pakistan.[citation needed] Several independent television and radio stations are based in Karachi, including Business Plus, AAJ News, Geo TV, KTN,[89]Sindh TV,[90]CNBC Pakistan, TV ONE, Express TV,[91]ARY Digital, Indus Television Network, Samaa TV, Abb Tak, BoL TV, and Dawn News, as well as several local stations.


Industry contributes a large portion of Karachi's economy, with the city home to several of Pakistan's largest companies dealing in textiles, cement, steel, heavy machinery, chemicals, and food products.[92] The city is home to approximately 30 percent of Pakistan's manufacturing sector,[39] and produces approximately 42 percent of Pakistan's value added in large scale manufacturing.[93] At least 4500 industrial units form Karachi's formal industrial economy.[94] Karachi's informal manufacturing sector employs far more people than the formal sector, though proxy data suggest that the capital employed and value added from such informal enterprises is far smaller than that offormal sector enterprises.[95]

Karachi Export Processing Zone, SITE, Korangi, Northern Bypass Industrial Zone, Bin Qasim and North Karachi serve as large industrial estates in Karachi.[96] The Karachi Expo Centre also complements Karachi's industrial economy by hosting regional and international exhibitions.[97]

Revenue collection

As home to Pakistan's largest ports and a large portion of its manufacturing base, Karachi contributes a large share of Pakistan's collected tax revenue. As most of Pakistan's large multinational corporations are based in Karachi, income taxes are paid in the city even though income may be generated from other parts of the country.[109] As home to the country's two largest ports, Pakistani customs officials collect the bulk of federal duty and tariffs at Karachi's ports, even if those imports are destined for one of Pakistan's other provinces.[110] Approximately 25% of Pakistan's national revenue is generated in Karachi.[37]

According to the Federal Board of Revenue's 2006–2007 year book, tax and customs units in Karachi were responsible for 46.75% of direct taxes, 33.65% of federal excise tax, and 23.38% of domestic sales tax.[111] Karachi accounts for 75.14% of customs duty and 79% of sales tax on imports,[111] and collects 53.38% of the total collections of the Federal Board of Revenue, of which 53.33% are customs duty and sales tax on imports.[111][112]


Main articles: Demographics of Karachi, Ethnic groups in Karachi, and Religion in Karachi

The 15th–18th century Chaukhandi tombs are located 29 km (18 mi) east of Karachi.
The former State Bank of Pakistan building was built during the colonial era.
Karachi Port Trust building
Satellite view of Karachi
The Arabian Sea influences Karachi's climate, providing the city with more moderate temperatures compared to interior Sindh province.
Central Karachi features several buildings dating from the colonial era.
A nighttime view of Karachi's posh seaside locality of Clifton.
Much of Karachi's skyline is decentralized, with some growth in traditionally suburban areas.
Karachi's financial heart is centered on I. I. Chundrigar Road

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 safehouse 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, chalo, Dubai, chalo. Come, come, let’s go to Dubai.

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

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 laborer who idealizes 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 fifteen 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 generalize, 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 neighbor 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 councilors 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 councilor could take it to the town nazim 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?

Mahim Maher


The Just City Essays is a joint project of The J. Max Bond Center, Next City and The Nature of Cities. © 2015 All rights are reserved.

About the Writer:
Mahim Maher

Mahim Maher is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She has worked as the city editor at The Express Tribune and Daily Times, two national English dailies who now writes long form investigative and explanatory pieces on Karachi's civic and urban infrastructure with a focus on transport, public spaces and water.

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